Hindsight Bias

My counsellor first mentioned hindsight bias to me when we were going through my therapy and working on my traumas, specifically my dads death. It can also be known as the ‘knew it all along effect’ and it is where people predict the outcome of an event after the event has happened.

When working through my traumas I was required to relive the experiences but in a controlled environment and I would focus on my thoughts, emotions and physical sensations more than I would if I was having flashbacks. Hindsight bias and PTSD go hand in hand (hindsight bias has been found to be stronger when relating to negative events). PTSD can impact our prefrontal cortex structure (which is responsible for emotional regulation, regulating attention, interpreting emotions, initiating voluntary, conscious behaviours and decision making). PTSD can cause dysfunctions of cognitive processing of context and abnormalities which can affect hindsight thinking. So for example, a war veteran may perceive that they could have altered the outcome of the war if they had done this or that differently, so when it came to my traumas, I would get flashbacks and relive the experience, but I was putting beliefs that I had created after the traumas (a belief such as ‘I should have done that, which could have changed this’) and placing it in the trauma. You put your current beliefs into a trauma that you cannot change at all, but you truly believe that if you had done/said something differently, then that would’ve changed the outcome.

(You can read about my dads death here which might help make sense of this next part). There was 1 hindsight bias belief that my counsellor and I worked on the most which was ‘I could’ve done something’. This belief was for when my dad was having the heart attack. When I went downstairs and saw what was happening I immediately broke down and stood in the doorway frozen. After his death I was filled with guilt, regret and hatred towards myself because instead of being stood in the doorway doing nothing, I could’ve done something. Then there was a point during the day where we had to get dad off the couch onto the floor so he was flat on his back but I was on the phone to the ambulance balling my eyes out and my mum was desperately trying her best. I ran to a neighbours house and there was no answer, so went to another house and he came out but my mum had already managed to get him on the floor by then so she asks me to wait at the top of our driveway for the ambulance to arrive, which is what I did but when I’d get flashbacks or when I was working through the trauma I would see all these moments during the day where I could’ve acted differently which then could’ve changed the end result.

We’d work on this belief by making a note of each moment during the trauma where the belief was active. So, this belief was active during the moments when:
– I was stood frozen in the doorway
– Sat on the stairs crying
– Watching my mum try and get my dad on the floor
– Waiting at the top of our drive way for the ambulance

During each 4 of those moments my belief was that I could’ve done something differently which could’ve changed the outcome (the changed outcome being my dad surviving the heart attack). So instead of sitting on the stairs crying, I could’ve been helping my mum or instead of waiting for the ambulance at the top of the drive, I could’ve been in the house doing something.

So, for example, lets take the moment I was stood in the doorway. We’d pause here, my counsellor would ask me to assess the situation, ask me how I was feeling, what I was feeling and what I was thinking. My initial thought at the time of the trauma was ‘Oh my god’, I wasn’t thinking anything else. I was feeling a whole world of pain and confusion, but thoughts wise, there wasn’t much going on, however, because of this hindsight bias, my thoughts on that paused moment were thoughts such as ‘What the fuck are you doing, you need to do something’ and ‘stop crying and do something’. These were present thoughts I had that I was putting in a past event because if I had done something then it could’ve changed the outcome of the event.

Once my counsellor and I had paused on either one of those four moments she would ask me ‘What could you do differently’ and my answer would be ‘I could be doing something’, to which she would reply with ‘What could you do?’ and my answer would always be ‘I don’t know’ which was usually followed by hysterical tears and then realisation would hit me like a fucking bus. I could not have done anything differently. My counsellor would help me lay out the facts. The facts being:
– I was a dainty 12 year old girl
– My dad was around 6ft3 and my mum is around 5ft5 (give or take a few…probs take a few)
– I was in shock
– I was responding how anyone in my position would respond
– I did what was asked of me (so staying on the phone to the ambulance, getting a neighbour, standing at the drive way etc)
– My dad was DOA so there was genuinely nothing I could’ve done that would’ve changed the outcome

After we had laid out the facts, we would revisit the moments and place the facts there. So for example, when my mum asked me to wait at the top of the drive, I did as I was told but I was so mad at myself for doing that because I had time to do something, but the facts are:
– I was a dainty 12 year old girl
– My uses were very limited considering my age, size and mental state during the event
– My mum didn’t want me to see what was happening so she tried to get me out of the house
– I did as I was told
– I flagged down the ambulance
– I did everything that I could’ve

It took a good amount of trauma work to help me see the memory without placing any current thoughts/beliefs/feelings in there but once I managed to do that the guilt that I carried just went away. I didn’t really blame myself for my dads death, but I held a lot of responsibility for it and that was because I wasn’t looking at the facts during the time of the trauma.

Therapy was honestly the best thing to happen to me (I know I have probably said that many times before) but it is however, something you have to be willing to go through because it is not easy, you will learn some hard truths, it will push you beyond your emotional limits and it will change your life but for the best. Trust me when I say (every time I say) that therapy was the best thing to happen to me.

Thank you for reading,

Sending my love,

Emma xo

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