This little bit of advice seemed to help a student in my critical thinking course. He went to a casino and won $800, a considerable sum for an undergraduate student. On his way to blowing his windfall, he stopped and thought about how his mental accounts were affecting his decision. He was in dire need of cash at the time, so he came home with the money, put it in the bank, and used it to live off of for a couple of weeks. It's one thing if you have excess money to blow, but if not, treating all your money equally will reduce reckless spending and result in more informed financial decisions. Why do blacks dominate basketball? All sorts of reasons have been proposed, including genetics. Some people believe that blacks are better basketball players because they can jump higher and run faster. Through this logic, it's no wonder blacks are superior at the game; in fact, some people could not imagine it otherwise. But when making such inferences, they're being caught up in the hindsight bias. No matter what the event, people can come up with causal explanations that make the event seem as if it was obvious from the start. It's obvious to many people that blacks dominate professional basketball for genetic reasons. But consider the following facts. At one time, Jews dominated the game. Basketball was primarily an east-coast, inner-city game from the 1920s to the 1940s, and it was played, for the most part, by the oppressed ethnic group of that time--the Jews. Investigative journalist Jon Entine noted that when Jews dominated basketball, sports writers developed many reasons for their superior play. As he states, "Writers opined that Jews were genetically and culturally built to stand up under the strain and stamina of the hoop game. It was suggested that they had an advantage because short men have better balance and more foot speed. They were also thought to have sharper eyes...and it was said they were clever."22 Paul Gallico, one of the premier sports writers of the 1930s, said the reason basketball appealed to Jews was that "the game places a premium on an alert, scheming mind, flashy trickiness, artful dodging and general smart aleckness."23 Notwithstanding the insulting stereotype, I'm amazed how we think we know the cause for something after the fact--even if that presumed cause is quite absurd. Were World War II, the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disasters, and the escalation of the Vietnam War inevitable?

With hindsight, people often answer yes. But if these events were so inevitable, why weren't they predicted? There are usually many uncertainties before an event occurs. But when we know the outcome, we forget about those uncertainties and think that the event was likely to happen all along. Psychologist Baruch Fischhoff interestingly demonstrated this tendency with a true historical account of a battle between British forces and the Gurkhas from Nepal.24 Fischhoff had people read about the battle, told some of them that the British actually won, and told others nothing about the outcome. They then had to assess the likelihood that the British won, the Gurkhas won, or a stalemate occurred, based only upon the battle's description (i.e., assuming they didn't know the outcome). Those who were told the British won thought there was a 57 percent probability of a British victory, while those not told the outcome thought there was only a 34 percent chance that the British won the battle. Once we know an outcome has occurred, two things happen: (1) The outcome seems inevitable, and (2) We easily see why things happened the way they did. In effect, if we know the outcome of an event, we restructure our memory. We don't remember the uncertainties that were evident before the event occurred; instead, we reconstruct the past given our knowledge of what actually happened.25 It's the curse of knowledge! Why is hindsight bias important? For one thing, it affects how we judge others. If our company lost market share and put our job in jeopardy, we may think, "Our CEO should have known that the competition was going to market a new innovation--just look at the evidence." But if we consider all the uncertainties that existed prior to knowing the outcome, we might have made the same decision as the CEO. Hindsight bias also inhibits how we learn from experience, because if we're not surprised by an outcome, we tend not to learn much from that outcome. So how can we mitigate the problems of hindsight? Just informing people about the bias is typically not enough. As with many other problems discussed here, one of the best ways to reduce the bias is to consider the alternative--consider how an alternative outcome could have occurred. In so doing, we pay attention to information that supports an alternative outcome, which should open up the possibility that the actual outcome may not have been obvious from the start.26 Our three questions, "What is it? How strong is it? And, how long does it last?" are a clever remedy for this particular malady.

In order to answer these questions, we must ascertain the quality of the distraction. To do that, we must divorce ourselves from it, take a mental step back from it, disengage from it, and view it objectively. We must stop thinking the thought or feeling the feeling in order to view it as an object of inspection. This very process is an exercise in mindfulness, uninvolved, detached awareness. The hold of the distraction is thus broken, and mindfulness is back in control. At this point, mindfulness makes a smooth transition back to its primary focus, and we return to the breath. When you first begin to practice this technique, you will probably have to do it with words. You will ask your questions in words, and get answers in words. It won't be long, however, before you can dispense with the formality of words altogether. Once the mental habits are in place, you simply note the distraction, note the qualities of the distraction, and return to the breath. It's a totally nonconceptual process, and it's very quick. The distraction itself can be anything: a sound, a sensation, an emotion, a fantasy, anything at all. Whatever it is, don't try to repress it. Don't try to force it out of your mind. There's no need for that. Just observe it mindfully with bare attention. Examine the distraction wordlessly, and it will pass away by itself. You will find your attention drifting effortlessly back to the breath. And do not condemn yourself for having been distracted. Distractions are natural.

They come and they go. Despite this piece of sage counsel, you're going to find yourself condemning anyway. That's natural too. Just observe the process of condemnation as another distraction, and then return to the breath. Watch the sequence of events: Breathing. Breathing. Distracting thought arising. Frustration arising over the distracting thought. You condemn yourself for being distracted. You notice the self-condemnation. You return to the breathing. Breathing. Breathing. It's really a very natural, smooth-flowing cycle, if you do it correctly. The trick, of course, is patience. If you can learn to observe these distractions without getting involved, it's all very easy. You just glide through the distraction, and your attention returns to the breath quite easily. Of course, the very same distraction may pop up a moment later. If it does, just observe that mindfully. If you are dealing with an old, established thought pattern, this can go on happening for quite a while, sometimes years.

Don't get upset. This too is natural. Just observe the distraction and return to the breath. Don't fight with these distracting thoughts. Don't strain or struggle. It's a waste. Every bit of energy that you apply to that resistance goes into the thought complex and makes it all the stronger. So don't try to force such thoughts out of your mind. It's a battle you can never win. Just observe the distraction mindfully and it will eventually go away. It's very strange, but the more bare attention you pay to such disturbances, the weaker they get. Observe them long enough and often enough with bare attention, and they fade away forever. Fight with them and they gain strength. Watch them with detachment and they wither. That is what the concept of confession is all about--setting us free from the dread of discovery when we're in the wrong. Like the active choice to have faith, this is not for God's benefit but for ours. Taking responsibility serves as a powerful reminder that we're only human after all. That is paradoxically empowering. Fear of exposure arises in part from the misguided belief that we ought to be more than we are, when the fact is God expects no such thing. The moment we admit our frailties, we find the strength and the motivation to be and do better in the future.