Hindsight is a wonderful thing?

Hindsight is defined as ‘understanding of a situation or event only after it has happened or developed’ (Oxford Languages Online, 2023). We use it all the time as part of our decision-making process in order to make improvements in the present, especially with a view to the future. When we consider things like progress, achievement and success, hindsight is a natural part of our thinking. By looking back, we can account for mistakes or learn from failure. This can be a very productive endeavour since they are reliable facts to draw upon.  It also provides a temporal view of things, that is, things are framed by using the past present and future.

Although this is a useful part of learning, it can sometimes create difficulties since we can only directly control what goes on in the present. We can plan for a future in the present which provides us with some measurable control. However, when it comes to the past, we can do nothing except learn from it. Consequentially, when we experience difficult life events, failure or make mistakes we can inadvertently use hindsight in destructive ways.

The impact of sudden unexpected unpredictable events can be distressing.  How many times have we said to ourselves, “I wish I had done things differently”,” if only I could go back in time, I would do it differently” or “If I had my time again things would be different”. 

Solutions become the things we should have done and not what we could do. This can become a vicious cycle of regret, rumination, and remorse whereby problems somehow become unsolvable. We may begin to lose faith and belief in our own abilities to make good decisions and draw negative conclusions about ourselves. Difficulties become more and more impossible. When we are in this frame of mind things become unnecessarily complicated leading to irrational and destructive thinking. Therefore, what could we be doing to help ourselves? 

Solutions become the things we should have done and not what we could do. This can become a vicious cycle of regret, rumination, and remorse whereby problems somehow become unsolvable


Time travel is currently impossible ,however let's take the premise that if we had our time again we would have done things differently. Take a second to imagine a point in time where you believe you should have done things differently. What if we had access to and were able to step into a time machine? Imagine standing at the time machine control console and then type in the coordinates, year, month, day… Then, buckle up. 

The time machine starts to quietly whir, beep and hum. With no obvious motion, it begins to effortlessly glide through space and time. As we approach the destination, the scene or scenario is slowly revealed once again. We are back in the past with an opportunity to do something that will solve all our problems, right? The time machine doors open and when we are ready, we can step out and do the things that will right all those wrongs.  Ok, timeout!

The belief prior to our time travel journey is that we made a bad decision or even we are incapable of making a good one. To test this we need to recreate the conditions as it happened the first time and reapply them. This includes all the things we knew (the past), what’s happening at the time (the present) and the things we don’t know (all unavailable  knowledge which includes that of the future). 

This is generally how humans make decisions and under these circumstances we’ll try to make the best decisions we can. For the most part we do this based upon survival instincts to ensure a safe existence. That is, by knowing our past and our present we will make the best decision we can to ensure a safe secure future. What we don't have to hand in a decision-making process is knowledge of the future. We can try to predict or guess, but we simply don’t know what the future actually holds.

For the most part we make decisions based upon survival instincts to ensure a safe existence.

Based upon this understanding the time machine will re-create this event, this moment in time, exactly as it happened the first time. As you step over the threshold into your recreated past, the time machine will erase your memory of everything that happened after this point in time.  When you land in your recreated past all you will know are all the things that happened so far and all that is currently going on. You will not know anything else, including your future. Taking all of this into consideration what will be the outcome if you decide to take that small step?

Recreating this moment means we repeat it, as it happened. If we go back to it, as it happened the first time, there will be no additional information to hand. There is nothing to tell us we need to do something different. The only conclusion to this time travel exercise is, we would have made the same decision and done exactly the same things, as it happened the first time. We could recreate this moment a hundred, a thousand, a million times and you would still do the same thing as if it happened the first time.  Therefore, why do we use hindsight and say that we would do things differently? 

When we reflect and look back, all of this information is plain to see. However, we sometimes skip the parts that tells us the order in which it happened and how much control we actually had at the time. This is particularly true when we experience distressing life events.  We use information that became available to us after the event to evaluate what we did. This creates a distorted inaccurate account. 

 When life becomes difficult it often brings a sense of complexity that can easily overwhelm us. This naturally means we’ll see things through a negative lens that can lead to distorted views of ourselves and our actions. If we are to learn from the past it is important we do not distort how it actually happened and we use hindsight in a way that allows us to learn rather than punish. The next time we look back let's be mindful of what we are doing.  If we use it as it happened, hindsight can be a wonderful thing.


Osian Leader is a psychotherapist and practitioner specialising in Bereavement and Trauma. Osian currently works with SOHK as a psychotherapist. He also works as supervisor with Gloucestershire County Council Counselling Team, Swansea University, Breath, Mind and in private practice.