Prospective Hindsight Technique

Prospective Hindsight Technique in a Nutshell

Prospective hindsight is a simple but effective technique for problem solving and decision making when you need to come up with more detailed explanations and generate more specific and concrete reasons. The essence of this technique is to think about a future event with certainty. Certainty, in turn, gives birth to explanations that are more specific and concrete, and such explanations may also reduce some of the cognitive biases.

Research on Prospective Hindsight

A 1989 study by Deborah Mitchell, Edward Russo, and Nancy Pennington analyzed whether people would generate more reasons if they thought about an event with certainty.[1] The researchers knew from earlier studies that people come up with longer explanations when they analyze past events. So they wondered whether it is merely because an event happened in the past or because of the certainty with which people think about past events. So they tested their idea that it is all about the certainty.

The subjects in their experiment read about a woman who was giving a large party to her coworkers; then they had to come up with various reasons why the party succeeded or why it failed:

Imagine that you work at a major consumer products firm. A good friend of yours, Heather, has been employed for eight months as a brand assistant. Single and her mid-twenties, she is determined to combine both a successful career and a satisfying social life. Recently, for professional and social reasons she has decided to give a large dinner party. She has spared no expense to make the party a huge success.

Some subjects were asked to imagine that the party might have succeeded in the past or it might succeed in the future:

  • Past uncertain: “Please list as many reasons as you can think of why the party may have been a great success.”
  • Future uncertain: “Please list as many reasons as you can think of why the party may be a great success.”

Others were asked to imagine that the party already happened and it was a great success, or that it will happen and will certainly succeed:

  • Past certain: “As it turned out, the party was a great success. Please list as many reasons as you can think of why the party was a great success.”
  • Future certain: “As it will turn out, the party will be a great success. Please list as many reasons as you can think of why the party will be a great success.”

As expected, the results show that certainty matters more than past or future in itself. So the subjects who thought about the future event with certainty generated longer explanations than those who considered the past event with uncertainty. Overall, the certainty led to 30% more reasons and twice as many action-based reasons than abstract reasons (listing specific actions like “she greeted guests with a smile,” instead of abstract explanations like “she was friendly”).

 Abstract vs. Concrete Explanations

As the researchers pointed out, concrete explanations are often superior, for example, because they may help to reduce some of our cognitive biases. Yet, it would be misleading to suggest that concrete thinking is always better, even though some experts imply this by saying that prospective hindsight increases “the ability to correctly identify reasons.” [2] In fact, whether prospective hindsight helps to correctly identify reasons depends whether concrete thinking in a particular situation will be superior to abstract thinking.

Over the last 15 years there has been extensive research published on abstraction and related issues like construal-level theory. This research has examined, among other things, how abstract and concrete thinking affects prediction, preferences, probability estimates, risk perception, judgment, decision-making, problem-solving, and creativity.[3] In short, neither abstract thinking nor concrete thinking is superior across-the-board. For instance, more concrete representations work better than abstract ones when trying to explain other people’s actions or predict their behavior, because concrete explanations are more likely to take into account the situational factors and decrease the correspondence bias which places too much weight on people’s attitudes, values, and other internal characteristics, disregarding any situational pressures which drive their behavior. Yet, more abstract thinking may be better for some creative challenges and also for more accurate risk perception.

Notes

[1] Deborah J. Mitchell, J. Edward Russo, Nancy Pennington, Back to the Future: Temporal Perspective in the Explanation of Events, Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 2, 25-38 (1989).

[2] Gary Klein, Performing a Project Premortem, Harvard Business Review, 2007; available at <https://hbr.org/2007/09/performing-a-project-premortem>

[3] See e.g. Erin M. Burgoon, Marlone D. Henderson, and Arthur B. Markman, There Are Many Ways to See the Forest for the Trees: A Tour Guide for Abstraction, Perspectives on Psychological Science, 8, 501 –520 (2013). DOI: 10.1177/1745691613497964.