The Hindsight Bias and Personalization: Why Our Minds Naturally Prefer Misery to Fear

The Hindsight Bias, according to Kendra Cherry, is “the tendency people have to view events as more predictable than they really are.” Our minds love and need, or at least strongly desire, to feel secure. So, we create interpretations of past events that seem predictable. Whether we had a hunch about something that occurred or consider ourselves to be unloveable and easy to dismiss, our stories inform our predictions, which, in turn, inform our actions.

This bias is an evolutionary adaption, one that mitigates our fears while, at times, promoting misery. Although it’s easy to see why we overreact to sources of potential physical harm (if you run from a strange noise in the dark, you likely won’t lose anything), it’s interesting that we would rather accept order over inner serenity. In therapy, we often help our clients search for the emotional payoffs, or benefits, of distorted beliefs, asking: if X is true, then what’s to gain? So, if I’m unwanted, is there some good that stems from that reality? Most people would say, “Yes. I get to give up trying.” In a subjective world wherein rejection and failure are predictable, you can rest easy knowing that you can’t improve your lot. Essentially, you aren’t a quitter if you can’t win.

Thus, if we take social rejection as an inevitable precursor to physical harm in some distant past, then it would make sense for our minds to protect us from it. Again, even if we’re miserable. In this respect, personalization, the tendency to take too much responsibility for some event (like a rejection), constitutes another form of protection. If hindsight tells me that I shouldn’t have been so stupid by trying to start a band or ask my crush out on a date because I knew it wouldn’t happen, then my personalizing can work to keep me safe at some temporally distant point. If I shame myself enough, as awful as it may be, I’ll do so with the notion and goal of my own safety, kind of like when a parent scolds their kid for not wearing a helmet when riding a bike. Safety is the ultimate end and predictability leads us there.

All of this isn’t to say that anyone wants to have poor self-esteem, just that personalizing is a natural, human tendency, which is then reinforced by an equally poor childhood environment. ‘Better safe than sorry’ is a motto deeply situated in our brains at the expense of emotional stability. Most of my clients struggle with the stories they tell themselves. They conceive of themselves as the main actors in their lives, intentionally and unintentionally stimulating reactions. But, the alternative is much more difficult to accept. And, often, reality is much more random. Predictably, in fearing rejection, many of my clients seek control, and predictability is the way to get it. But, what if luck is as significant as my own behavior? What if the person I am matters as much as, or even less so, than the person my husband is? What if, even if I’m perfect, I still won’t be able to always predict and influence his actions?

Randomness is being assigned a narcissistic guardian; it’s being rejected by a person who was unknowingly emotionally unavailable; and it’s a missed job opportunity due to race and/or gender. Most of us struggle to tolerate randomness and should continue to wage a war against the chaos, but, on the opposite end, we need to accept its inevitability. As there’s a sense of freedom in acknowledging that you’ll always fail because you’re a loser, there’s as much of it in accepting that your failures rarely solely stem from who you are or what you have or haven’t done. There isn’t much to fear when you have limited control, but there’s also much to fear when you have limited control.

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