Guilt and Hindsight Bias


  • Author Dr. Bruce Wilson
  • Published June 24, 2022
  • Word count 669

Guilt and Hindsight Bias

Bruce Wilson, PhD

It is sometimes said that “hindsight is 20/20”, which implies it is really accurate. Perhaps, but maybe not! Daniel Kahneman describes the fallibility and bias of hindsight as follows:

“Hindsight bias has pernicious effects on the evaluations of decision makers. It leads observers to assess the quality of a decision not by whether the process was sound but by whether its outcome was good or bad.”

The refutation of eye-witness testimony is just one example of the hit-and- miss reliability of our hindsight. Psychologists as expert witnesses have been demonstrating the idea that hindsight bias negates reliable testimony in court for years. Significant to psychologists, is the concept that hindsight bias may help us understand some core issues contributing to our inappropriate emotional reactions to guilt.


What is guilt? Guilt is defined here as any feeling or emotion leading to shame or regret as a result of a bad decision or action. The key word here is a perceived “bad”, which emanates from hindsight bias. Are we guilty of something bad or just guilty of hindsight bias? This distinction could be salient to psychologists working with clients dealing with guilt.

The potential benefit is to help clients come to the realisation that they may be judging themselves not based on their decision but rather retrospectively only on the adverse outcome of that decision. As we know, outcomes are not always within our control. Any feelings of guilt in this case may be unwarranted and unnecessary. Guilt could always evolve into a burden that clients have not earned or deserved. Clients need to re-evaluate these feelings of guilt that have no useful purpose and that can create other contraindicated issues that are problematic, like depression or anxiety.

“When I turn down work, I feel guilty, I feel terrible: I don’t know where the next job is going to come from.” – Joan Rivers

Separating the quality of our decisions from the outcome of our decisions seems paramount to dealing with an inappropriate decision to feel guilt. Maybe the emotion of guilt needs further clarification. Should guilt be something we hang onto and long-lasting or is guilt more of a warning emotion that gives us useful information so we can move on?

When we go against our values the feelings of guilt are more than likely to surface for most of us. But do these feelings have to last a lifetime? Obviously, a life riddled with guilt has some negative repercussions. Functionality is compromised mainly due to our lowered self-esteem. We are likely to feel unworthy or undeserving more often than we should primarily because of our feelings of guilt. This seems counterproductive long-term. Conversely, some feelings of guilt are perfectly normal. We know that the total absence of guilt leads to sociopathic behaviour. We obviously need guilt but how much?

“Every guilty person is his own hangman.” – Lucius Annaeus Seneca

What About a Time-Limited Guilt?

What about allowing guilt but adjusting guilt to be time-limited? We all realise when we feel guilty but does it have to be long lasting or could we establish an end-point for our guilt? A so-called “statute of limitations”. What if the endpoint of guilt could be the outcome of our learning rather than just retaining another negative emotion. We would then be evaluating ourselves through our increased knowledge of ourselves rather than adding another impediment to our psyche. We would then support our self-esteem by learning from our mistakes rather than continue to punish ourselves for the mistake. I like to call this self-punishment of our mistakes “the second mistake”, which is really still being focused on the first mistake. Why get stuck on the negative when we have the potential to benefit rather than restrict ourselves through our acceptance of our natural human fallibility rather than feed blame, shame, and regret? We need to be more self-accepting with our feelings of guilt. Through this strategy we could learn to help nurture rather than denature our identity.


Dr. Bruce Wilson is a psychologist with 25 years of experience. He enjoys sharing his ramblings with friends and colleagues. He is currently in private practice at Mind Health Care in Geelong, Australia. This article is solely his work.

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