When hindsight is distinctly not beneficial

I’ve seen some disturbing instances of post-purchase rationalisation bias. This bias is what it says it is: it’s the tendency to rationalise a purchase after you’ve made it. The thing is, this bias is a type of choice-supportive bias – that means that when you evaluate a choice in hindsight, you tend to see the choice as better than perhaps it actually was. Maybe you were a bit uncertain about your choice as you were making it, but once it was made – oh no, it was definitely the right choice! It was so incredibly superior to the other option, no doubt about it. In fact, the other option was kind of awful, really. Lucky you’re so good at making awesome decisions!

So the post-purchase rationalisation bias means you tend to highlight the positive attributes of an item you’ve chosen to buy, since you probably consider the choice to have been a good one (otherwise you wouldn’t have made it, right?). That’s not to say that no one ever regrets a purchase, but this bias of the brain means that in most cases, you are more likely to try to see your choice as positive – particularly if the item was expensive.

It seems kind of harmless, since it’s presumably a good thing to make yourself happy with what you’ve ended up with, especially if you’ve invested a lot of money in it. Surely that’s preferable to always doubting your choice or lamenting not choosing the other option. However, the danger comes in not learning from one’s mistakes. If people (maybe me, maybe you, under the right circumstances) are willing to explain away negative aspects of their choices and over-emphasise the positive aspects, they put themselves at risk of making further poor (and expensive) choices in the future.

For example, I’ve seen a person explain away the handle falling off their expensive designer bag quite soon after purchase. They presumably reasoned that the bag must still be great because, well, they chose it and it cost that much, which led them to purchasing another of the same bag – just in a different colour this time. Was that a good decision? Well, it’s not my place to judge, but this bias does seem to lead to not learning from your mistakes – and then paying heftily for it. So if you’re interested in being a thoughtful consumer, maybe try to be as objective as possible when you’re evaluating your choices in hindsight. With this cognitive bias, the benefit of hindsight suddenly seems a bit more wayward and capricious than you would hope for from a so-called “benefit”.

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