Monday, February 16, 2009

20/20 Hindsight or Cognitive Bias?

In a survey by 65 historians, former President George W. Bush was ranked 36th out of the 42 men who have served as US President through 2008. The survey participants ranked each former president on a scale of one, "not effective" to 10, "very effective," on a list of 10 leadership qualities including relations with Congress, public persuasion, moral authority, international relations, economic management, pursuing equal justice for all and crisis leadership.

Within the article, one of the survey participants, Dr. Edna Medford (Associate Professor and former director of the Department of History’s graduate and undergraduate programs at Howard University) made a statement that really resonated with me. She said “Today's concerns shape our views of the past, be it in the area of foreign policy, managing the economy or human rights.” This statement made me think of one of my previous posts, as well as a follow-up post from a friend of mine.

When I chose the words “20/20” and discussed former President Bush being judged based on hindsight – I should have included a discussion concerning some of the more obvious cognitive bias that may have led to where we are today.

There are many to choose from, though I suspect that “experts” out there may have more to say on the subject than I ever could. Hindsight bias, outcome bias, historian’s fallacy, and the fog of war technique seem to fit the bill here. Very basic definitions from Wikipedia show that hindsight bias is “filtering memory of past events through present knowledge, so that those events look more predictable than they actually were.” The example they use is the attack on Pearl Harbor – looking back, with what we know now, it seems impossible to believe such a surprise attack was possible. Outcome bias is the tendency to judge a decision by its eventual outcome instead of based on the quality of the decision at the time it was made. The historian’s fallacy occurs when one assumes decision makers of the past viewed events from the same perspective and having the same information as those subsequently analyzing the decision. Finally, as stated in Wikipedia, in the “fog of war technique” approach, “the actions and decisions of the historical subject (such as a military commander) are evaluated primarily on the basis of what that person knew at the time, and not on future developments that the person could not have known.”

The fog of war technique and historian’s fallacy seem to fit very well with what I discussed in my post about judging fmr Pres Bush’s decisions regarding his actions following 9/11. In the present, we have considerably more information and different information than what was available immediately following September 11th, 2001. It is a mistake to judge decisions made 8+ years ago using today’s perspectives and today’s information.

I am not saying those decisions were right or wrong, simply that those decisions should be judged based on what the decision maker knew at the time. I choose to believe that George Bush, as our President and as an elected official, made the best decision he was able to for the good of our country, based on the best information available at the time. If one does not, or cannot, believe that about our elected officials in the highest office in the land, what does that say about our election process and democracy in general?

1 comment:

  1. Without getting too much into politics (and thereby into a very charged discussion), I also think Bush 43 will, over time, come to be seen in a much more favorable light than he is currently. People aren't giving him enough credit, and the surest example I can point to right now is the simple fact that Pres Obama, riding to the Oval Office on a mandate of 'Change,' is not making that many adjustments to Bush 43 policies. Guantanamo Bay? More than adhering to the demands of the Geneva Convention. The policy of Rendition? No change. The approved use of interrogation techniques (that many call torture)? No change. Civil libertarians and Amnesty International might be outraged, but they do not have all the facts.

    And the biases listed above seem to support Bush's decision to go to war with Iraq in 2003. At the time (all throughout the 1990s), everyone was convinced that Saddam had NBC weapons. The Clinton administration and the UN Security Council was convinced of that. He had used them in the past. It was only in hindsight that we learned Saddam was only bluffing, in order to maintain his position in Middle East politics (and to keep the Iranians from invading again!).