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Hindsight bias: How well can you guess someone's emotional state?

Are you guilty of hindsight bias? How has it affected your ability to assess someone's emotional state?
Participants didn't have hindsight bias with happiness, a new study reveals.

Being able to read people's emotional states is important for cultivating functional relationships and strong social interactions, say researchers at Kwantlen Polytechnic University (KPU). 

But hindsight bias — known as the knew-it-all-along experience — can prevent the accurate reading of another person's emotions. 

In short, this is when a person believes they already knew the outcome or emotion after it has happened.

“People are generally not aware of their hindsight bias. However, even when you make people aware, they still tend to show the bias,” says Daniel Bernstein, Canada Research Chair in lifespan cognition and a psychology instructor at KPU.

Researchers wanted to understand how hindsight bias affects the human experience. They showed participants 15 images with various emotions, which started out as blurry and then gradually came into focus.

Participants were able to stop the pan from blurry to sharp when they knew which emotion they were looking at. Then, the participants repeated the process again. 

Based off the two rounds, researchers found hindsight bias in instances where participants stopped the blur-to-sharp process earlier than before.

One notable finding was that happiness was one emotion that researchers did not detect hindsight bias in.

"We were surprised to consistently find that people did not exhibit hindsight bias for happy faces. At this point, we don’t have a definitive answer as to why this occurred. We explored a few different explanations through both experimental manipulations and also modelling our data to reveal latent processes that may be operating," says Michelle Hunsche, then-KPU student.

It is unclear why people presented hindsight bias for all emotions excluding happiness. But some evidence suggests that happy faces possess a uniqueness that makes people less likely to overestimate its identification.

The research was conducted by then KPU and Simon Fraser University students Megan Giroux, Michelle Hunsche and Ragav Kumar, under the supervision of Bernstein.

The results of their study have now been published in the journal, Emotion.