Hindsight bias

I was reading a very interesting book called "The Borderlands of Science" by Michael Shermer in which the author was discussing a phenomenon called hindsight bias. The general concept is we unknowingly change the causation or predictors for an outcome after it has happened. That is, in our minds, it was obvious that it would rain this afternoon because it was cloudy this morning, which essentially disregards all the other times it was cloudy in the morning and it didn't rain in the afternoon.

So what did I think of? That's right. I thought of eating disorders.*

More specifically, I thought of therapy for eating disorders.

For the first several years after my diagnosis, my therapy (when it wasn't involved in crisis management) focused on what could have happened in my past that caused my eating disorder. Most of this examined my relationship with my parents and what went wrong. Besides being the result of a false assumption--that I had an eating disorder, therefore my parents screwed me up--this examination effectively caused hindsight bias.

My therapists never tasked me with finding ways my parents had supported me through the years, they tasked me with looking for the negatives. To be fair, my therapists didn't deny that my parents were supportive, but that was brushed aside in the search for How My Parents Screwed Me Up. It was classic hindsight bias. The outcome was that I had anorexia. So I began to discuss my childhood in a much different context. Suddenly, sitting on my therapist's overstuffed armchair, I found event after event in which my parents were too controlling. They kept popping up! I couldn't believe it! No wonder I had an eating disorder.

In the meantime, I kept starving, purging, and over-exercising.

And the more time I focused on issues of control and unexpressed emotions and self-determination and other existential topics, the more I came to believe that these things lay at the "root" of my eating disorder. It was, essentially, a self-fulfilling prophecy. Of course I wasn't recovered yet- my mom was still too controlling. My mom gave me suggestions on what apartments to rent, what clothes might be the most useful, on time management. I didn't have control of my life! I needed to be Empowered, to Make My Own Choices, to Be My Own Person. That meant no one could dare tell me I wasn't eating or drinking enough, that I was tethered to the treadmill, that maybe taking Ex-Lax everyday was a really bad idea. In the meantime, I kept starving, purging, and over-exercising.

I won't ever accuse my parents of being under-controlling. The norm in my family was established mainly by the sheer disbelief that either my brother and I would ever do anything wrong. Though my brother certainly got in trouble far more than I did, he still wasn't a little hellion. Was it the best way to raise kids? I don't know. I have issues with expressing dissent that no doubt relates to this; I also have social anxiety that makes me not want to stick out. None of this means that my so-called "controlling" parents were at the root of my eating disorder.

But the more I kept thinking about it, the more I kept reinforcing my therapist's and my own hindsight bias, the more instances of hyper-controlling parents I found. Weekly perservation on how I never felt I could freely express my emotions made me think of more and more experiences where I felt weird expressing my emotions. Did my mom try to get me to stop crying because she didn't like sadness, or was she pained to see an unhappy child?

All of this looking and searching frankly made me pissed off at my parents. Look at what they did to me! LOOK! They made me anorexic! How dare they try to take that away from me?!? How could people who tried to ruin my life possibly help me recover from an eating disorder?

My parents were not perfect. People with EDs come from dysfunctional families. Most families are a little dysfunctional if you look hard enough (though some stories from my extended family can make most families seem pretty damn normal!). Some parents of ED children have major issues. Do I think my parents should have done things differently? Yep. But that doesn't mean they caused my eating disorder.

The point is this: the more time I spent looking for ways my parents caused my eating disorder, the more ways I found. If I had anorexia, it was obvious my parents were over-controlling. So every instance of control became prominent in my mind. And the issue of control and emotions was blown out of proportion and Ed loved every minute of it.

*If it made me think of cats or something, I probably wouldn't blog about it.

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Amy said...

It's fascinating/sad how ingrained this is in our culture. My mom constantly berates herself for every shortcoming she can conjure from my childhood. It seems like it's never enough (even though I speak in truth) that a_it's in the past and b_I'm not worried about it anymore and haven't been in years. She's starting to come around now that she's learned how many kids in our neighborhood have been in therapy (there's a neighborhood shrink list no less!), that her friends are perfectly good parents/people and it doesn't mean that something can't go awry for other reasons. But, regardless, that burden she carries makes it all but impossible for everyone to move forward into a healthy future.
Which turns into a cycle, hindsight or not. Sigh.

Just Eat It! said...

It's actually funny that you mention hindsight bias. I just finished up a chapter in my psychology class on it.

I didn't know it at the time, but I feel like a lot of ideas were planted in my head by the therapist I was seeing a few years back. The more she talked about how "controlling" my parents were, the more I began to see it. Looking back, now I know that my parents were simply being authoritative, not authoritarian.

now.is.now said...

I am not sure if I really understand hindsight bias so this comment but be off, but...

I think I have accused others of hindsight biased when, really, they were right and I was in denial. I've had people confront me about my eating, and I've said things like, "Nothing is wrong. Just because something was wrong last year, you're looking for things to be wrong. If someone else were to have eaten x, you wouldn't be concerned. You're just looking for evidence to prove that something might be amiss with my eating."

That type of conversation has occured a lot. In hindsight, it is me who sees that the other people were more right than I was. Something was unusual about my eating and they were actually speaking the truth.

So when someone is telling you something that you don't fully see at the time.... when do you stop and beware of hindsight bias and when do you look for evidence that they are right, admitting that you are may not be seeing things clearly?

Carrie Arnold said...


I think the question is really tricky with EDs because usually the illness make a sufferer almost incapable of realizing that they have an eating disorder. I'm not positive that what you're describing is hindsight bias exactly, because I'm not sure if people knew at that point that you actually had an ED or just suspected, but these kinds of arguments are common in EDs and in general.

I guess the most recent presidential election is a good example of hindsight bias. Right after the results came in and President Obama won, some people were eager to say how "obvious" it was that Obama was going to win because A, B, and C happened. Part of the problem is that when A, B, and C happened initially, it didn't point to a huge victory for Obama. The other part of the problem is that it ignores events D-Z that may have indicated Obama wasn't the front-runner. But all you point to and think about is A, B, and C.

To distill it down (perhaps a little too much), hindsight bias is basically looking for examples from the past to confirm what you already know and ignoring everything else. Some of my therapists first made a wrong assumption that the "outcome" was not just an ED, but that my parents somehow screwed me up. The hindsight bias came into play when basically we explored my childhood cherry-picking for everything that confirmed this assumption and disregarding or minimizing the rest.

It's kind of a theorem in science that you shouldn't make your facts fit the theory!

RCK said...

This struck home so strongly with me. I remember having to see an psychologist at a clinic I was at for a while (I never really liked his approach or clicked with him, and only went to the sessions required by the clinic policies), but literally, when he started taking my history, the moment I said I had been several anorexic, he said, not asked, simply stated: "So your mother was a chronic dieter." My mother has never said one word about her weight in my living memory--and trust me, I would remember anything about that! When I think of my mom and weight, I think of her stashing a scale behind her laundry basket to be brought out every once in a while; I think of her being totally unfussed about putting on a few pounds over the winter; I think of her exulting over the fabulous new ginger-sesame dressing she's trying with her fresh salad; I think of her driving twenty minutes out of her way to buy a butter-pecan tart; I think of her sewing her own clothes in beautiful fabrics that make her feel good...in short, the idea of my mother dieting is a total farce. That said, I realize I'm very, very lucky not to have grown up with a mother dealing with mental issues around weight. And there is nothing that makes me shut an ED book faster than reading that apparently I became anorexic and bulimic because of my over-controlling parents or because I was sexually abused. Undoubtedly these factors are true for a portion of the population; to slant everything from this perspective, though, makes it easy to regard every parental decision or constraint as abusive and damaging. More to the point, hindsight thinking also completely, I feel, obliviates the consideration of other factors like biology, comorbid disorders, etc. It's interesting how so much of the work therapists do is about flipping the lid on misplaced beliefs--but if they're giving it a particular spin from day one, you end up having to flip THOSE beliefs later on in therapy!

Carrie Arnold said...


*Standing up and shouting amen, hallelujah, you sing it, sister!*


Crimson Wife said...

Gee, what could've possibly made my family a bit on the dysfunctional side? Let me think- oh, yeah, perhaps it was the underlying biochemical imbalance that manifested itself in me as an ED but manifested itself in numerous other relatives as depression, substance abuse, anxiety disorders, etc.

Things in my environment likely contributed to my developing an ED rather than some other problem, but they didn't cause it...

Jessie said...

Eating disorder is common among teenagers and kids, esp. to young women. Contact eating disorder treatment right away if you have any questions regarding eating disorders.

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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