You’ve done your best, but something in your life has screwed up yet again. You’re beating yourself up. Your head is full of “if onlys”. Hindsight has kicked you in the behind.
Everything you should have done now makes perfect sense. And you wish you could just turn things back like an old-fashioned timer on a microwave and repeat things again.
Depression engulfs you. But it doesn’t have to.
Sure, bad things happen. Indeed, awful, horrible, tragic things. It’s normal for us to feel upset, or depressed. But depression is like a drop of ink spilled onto a cloth. It seeps outward and becomes much larger than the triggering event.
When it comes to our hindsight interpretation of events, our brains play tricks on us. There’s even a pointy-headed psychological term for it: “creeping determinism”, as coined by psychologist Baruch Fischhoff.
In his book “What The Dog Saw”, author Malcolm Gladwell cites Fischhoff’s research into this phenomenon, conducted in the 1970s. A group of people were asked, before US President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China, to estimate the probability of the trip being a diplomatic success. They were also asked to recall their predictions afterward.
Many of those who predicted the trip would be a failure swore that they’d predicted a success when that eventuality actually occurred. “Creeping determinism”, as Gladwell summarises it, “turns unexpected events into expected events…the sense that grows on us, in retrospect, that what has happened was actually inevitable.”
There’s no point in second-guessing yourself after the fact. In all likelihood, you couldn’t have seen it coming. You just have to deal with the now.
I’ve been speaking with a friend recently who is having great difficulty doing this.
Without revealing personal circumstances, I’ll give you the gist of what he told me: an incident occurred in his life several months back, and he is now in a position where that incident may have resulted in unforeseen consequences. Problem is, he won’t know this for sure until next week. His fears may be entirely unfounded.
Unfortunately, maybe is not good enough when we’re faced with a vacuum. Our minds are prone to fill this vacuum with terror.
Not only do we create narratives in hindsight, we also create them in foresight. Based on the little pieces of information we have available, we connect dots. But unlike the dot-connecting in puzzle books, there is more than one possible outcome.
Again, there is some comfort to be derived in knowing that our brains are designed to find patterns. It was famed scientist Carl Sagan who spoke of the evolutionary advantage to this: this ability enabled us to recognise human faces from a great distance, or in conditions of bad visibility. The flipside to this is that we sometimes see things that aren’t there.
This exciting phenomena is known as pareidolia, and has led to some spectacular illusions over the years, perhaps most notably the “face” on Mars.
It was 1976, and Viking I was sending its latest images. Among a number of similar hillocks and mesas in a region of Mars called Cydonia Mensae, one feature stood out. It was a clear rendering of a human face! NASA engineers loved it; they passed it around, put it out for publication, and had all sorts of fun with it.
But what they hadn’t anticipated was that some in the public thought it was actually an artificially carved human face, despite the accompanying explanation that it was just a hill that happened to have this funny resemblance to a face when the light was at a certain angle.
One of its most important distinguishing features, a nostril, was only one of many black dots that actually represent missing data in the image. Before long, to the dismay of astronomers worldwide, there was a firmly established pop-culture belief that there was a real gigantic human face on Mars, carved in perfect detail by aliens.
In later years, higher resolution cameras were able to establish the reality: that the “face” was indeed merely a hill (see images at the top).
But pareidolia continues to affect our lives, causing ridiculous religious hallucinations like people seeing the Virgin Mary in a slice of toast. This has even been blasphemously parodied online by pictures showing images of Jesus visible in the hair of a dog’s arse.
In Gladwell’s article on hindsight, entitled “Connecting The Dots”, he examines a number of catastrophes including the 1986 Challenger space shuttle disaster and 9/11, both events which afterwards many believe we should have seen coming.
But, he argues, we can never know the full story. This is not, as he says, “evidence of the limitations of the intelligence community. It is evidence of the limitations of intelligence.”
We need to accept our limits if we’re going to live peaceful lives. One of those limits is time. We can’t go forward, we can’t go back. If we could, I would have already stopped Nickelback.
Stay with now, and as my good friend Boris has told me in my more neurotic times, “just keep taking the next step”.