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Fraud by Hindsight

Of all the words of mice and men, the saddest are, it might have been.

Kurt Vonnegut

I’ve done it. Likely, you’ve done it. Who hasn’t done it? Who hasn’t looked into their past and thought, why did I make that choice…? Who hasn’t asked themselves at some point in their lives, why couldn’t I see that? This revisiting of past decisions is an experience we’ve come to know as hindsight—something that can hold us hostage or when instructive, impact our future choices.

I became a mother at a fairly young age and often felt as though the task of raising children was like trying to navigate my way out of some intricate maze blindfolded. Exasperated at times, I wondered, what in the hell did these tiny tyrants want from me? As a result, hindsight has held sway over my opinion of myself as a parent throughout my sons’ lives. If only I could go back and do things differently. Why did I tell them to play in the yard so I could vacuum, change the beds, and wash six loads of laundry? Were the household chores more important than taking the boys to the park or the library? Will they remember that their home and clothes were clean? Given the choice, would they have even cared about cleanliness? Decidedly not. This is the “wisdom” of hindsight. An understanding that is completely elusive—until after the fact—and then it appears as wisdom. Wisdom that we are distressed to realize had eluded us the first time around.

Interestingly, the courts don’t consider wisdom a result of hindsight. They consider hindsight inaccurate and in the case of securities litigation, have given it the name “Fraud by Hindsight” pointing specifically to the hindsight bias identified by psychologists. In an article in the Cornell Law Faculty Publication, the authors write:a hurdle that plaintiffs in securities cases must overcome”[ because hindsight] “blurs the distinction between fraud and mistake.”  

In other words, it’s only because of the way you remember an incident now that you think you understood it perfectly then. The inherent problem here is that we are using information we didn’t have access to earlier to judge our past decisions. Is this useful or is it a case of sabotage by hindsight? Does the perspective of hindsight help us be more mindful in the future? Psychologist Richard B. Joelson thinks so and explains how he considers hindsight as a component in provoking behavioral change:

One of the ways I discuss change with my clients is by defining three states of awareness: hindsight, insight, and foresight. In the process of trying to change, hindsight is often the first way in which a person becomes more self-aware. Looking back at a problematic choice or action taken provides a useful beginning in the effort to function differently.

This makes sense to me. I see the value in using past mistakes as a tool for making better decisions. In doing the research, however, I discovered that psychological scientist Neil Roese disagrees with this idea. He believes hindsight is a barrier, “If you feel like you knew it all along, it means you won’t stop to examine why something really happened.”Okay, so he’s focusing on the situation as the impetus for the bad decision and worries if we rely too much on the outcome as simply a product of a poor choice, we will overlook all the stars that came into alignment to prompt the bad decision in the first place.

In trying to understand these opposing views on hindsight—and determine who is right—I returned to my oft-made decision to clean the house rather than play with my children. In hindsight, would I choose differently today? Absolutely. But by simply looking back in hindsight and deciding it was the wrong decision, am I failing to examine the things that impelled me to make that decision at that time? Things such as: it’s the same choice my own full-time working mother made, or what will other people think upon entering my apartment if they are greeted by mountains of dirty laundry and dust bunnies skittering across the floor?

As I analyze my life at that time, I realize that hindsight isn’t just about deciding which choices were right or wrong. It’s also necessary to discover the reason that I believed that housekeeping was more important than spending the little time I had outside of work playing with my sons. While it’s one thing to believe that we might have made a better choice, it’s something else to understand why we made that initial one.

Just as it can be an instrument for positive change, hindsight can also be a canker on our memories. Like a canker it goes away, but then it returns just as painful on subsequent outbreaks—particularly because it’s escorting regret. There is no instance in life where this is more pronounced than in the death of a loved one. Was there something you forgot or were afraid to ask?

Why doesn’t a neon sign flashing the words, “LAST CHANCE” appear in your head? I don’t know, but sometimes, it just doesn’t.

My father was a fighter, a real scrapper. A tall, wiry young man, he was seen as a weakling and frequently challenged to fist fights—the majority of which did not bode well for the guy who picked the fight. This was a source of angst for his mother, but it served him well later in life when he got into serious scrapes with his own body. A massive coronary at age 55 would have killed him had the cardiologist not been standing at his bedside. A third of his heart died that day. That vitiated organ no longer had enough oomph to pump the blood to the places it needed to go—his prognosis was grim. Nonetheless, Dad went on to spend the next 17 years of his life battling a plethora of health issues—meeting each new threat with a tenacity that to this day I look back on in wonderment. Upon each visit to that same cardiologist, the doctor would shake his head in disbelief and ask a question that he and Dad both knew was a challenge,

Are you still here, Ralph?”

My father’s will to live survived two cardiologists and transcended the physical pain he consistently met with fierce defiance for nearly two decades. We appreciated his desire to remain with us, though his suffering was breathtaking and distressing to witness. He preferred evoking laughter to complaining and during his many stays in hospitals around New England, he counted numerous fans among doctors and nurses alike. Humor was Dad’s panacea for the plethora of needles, IV lines, incisions, the rib spreaders, and two burr holes drilled into his head that he’d told the neighbor’s daughter were there because “that’s where I had my antlers removed.”

Despite always knowing how precarious Dad’s health was, we pushed the thought of his tenuous grasp on life to the back of our minds and were then bewildered when he reached the end of his journey. How could this be? He’d always rallied.

He too was shocked, but his shock transformed to anger and disappointment when he realized that he was expected to give up his place on this earth. The cardiologist approached Mom, my sister, and myself and advised us that Dad’s defibrillator device would need to be disconnected—an intentional, measurable step toward his end; our father had a living will. I imagine when Dad signed it he assumed that my mother, sister, brother-in-law and I would be the ones to decide to let him go. I’m certain he never imagined a scenario he’d be expected to participate in deciding his own fate. Who would? Don’t we all assume we’ll be comatose when our medical directive is activated? I know I do. I envision myself lying brain dead on a gurney and that the steps taken to end my life will be an act of mercy. What must it have been like for him to still be able to walk and talk and think and yet be expected to give up the life he cherished?

The cardiologist himself arrived later in the week with his laptop—though a technician is typically sent on these missions. In addition to the doctor and my father, there were seven of us present in my parent’s sunny living room that afternoon. We conversed about everything we could think of that had nothing to do with the reason we were all there.

Through Dad’s myriad of health issues, I’d consistently been the most vocal during his hospital stays—always questioning what the doctors were doing to him and asking them to explain their decisions. I know it’s the reason he looked at me first when he asked,

            “Do you have any questions?”

I was blindsided. I’m a slow processor. I could see the demand—if not in his voice, in his eyes. My mind went blank. I answered without having truly considered the question. In hindsight, I believe he wanted me to ask how the doctor knew for sure that it was the right time for this dramatic and irreversible action. Why didn’t I ask? My soft-spoken “no” was followed by six additional assenting voices before the doctor attempted to disconnect the device. I say attempted because he struggled with the program. What was meant to be a quick and simple computer command was met with resistance. Was this Dad’s tenacity at play or was the universe sending us a message?

The air in the room grew heavy with confusion, disbelief, anxiety, grief. Those of us who had earlier replaced awkward silence with chatter—remained voiceless. Then…a series of beeps. Then…it stopped. Then…silence. A count of ten. Then… like a gunshot that suddenly pierces the stillness at a military funeral, the ominous click penetrated the silence of our collectively held breath as the doctor closed his laptop. Just like that, the cardiologist finished the last chapter in Dad’s story. And that question I meant to ask—would have asked if Dad had turned to me last and I’d had time to process—what of that? That question remains to this day unasked and unanswered—relegated to the abyss of time and the hindsight eternally linked to a final, clear memory of my father.

Today— though hindsight provides an unobstructed view of the past—it feels more productive to survey my life through the driver’s side windshield.

by Sonja Martineau

Works Cited

Vonnegut, Kurt. Goodreads, Inc., 2019.

Tags: Hindsight Bias, Kurt Vonnegut, Living Will

  • Daniel Carney   /   February 24, 2019., 9:48 pmReply

    Then…a series of beeps. Then…it stopped. "Then…silence. A count of ten. Then… like the gunshot that suddenly pierces the stillness at a military funeral, the ominous click penetrated the silence of our collectively held breath. The doctor had closed the laptop. Just like that he’d finished the last chapter in Dad’s story. " Sonja, This is beautifully written, as grim of a topic as it is. Your voice is very much present, the anecdote is relatable, and your language is imbued with powerful emotion. You did a wonderful job blending the formal with the informal, and to great effect, incorporating that unmistakable storytelling prowess found in your best works of fiction. Well done!