Psychology and History: Explaining Humanity, Battling Hindsight

Our first educational on this expedition into the Psychology of World War is the London Science Museum, our way of easing jet-lagged students into the course by starting with just “psychology” and letting “world war” wait a day. We will remind students that psychology is a science, and how it works, by visiting the permanent exhibits Psychology: Mind Your Head, and The Science and Art of Medicine. We are also fortunate in the selection of special exhibitions: I will direct the students to Pain Less, which may provide a good entry into questions of the pain both physical and mental resulting from war, and Code Breaker, which tells the story of Alan Turing, which might lead into genius and some of the greater intellectual challenges of warfare. I might even recommend The Voice of the BBC, to help set the context of the 1940s and the idea of getting all news via radio for these students who are younger than the Internet.

Even as they wander into exhibits on time and climate change and electronic music, though, they will be asked to keep one big question in mind: how do scientists and historians look at the world? Much of our course will be looking at historical events through a psychological lens, and visiting history museums or historical sites, so it seems only sensible to consider where historical and psychological perspectives overlap and where they differ.

Historians may disagree with me, but I believe that history and psychology share a common goal: We are trying to explain human behavior. Historians do this focus on past events, documenting in detail to glean what political, cultural and personal pressures lead people to do what they do in events great and small.  Or as it was put by one philosophical historian:

“Knowing yourself means knowing what you can do; and since nobody knows what they can do until they try, the only clue to what man can do is what man has done. The value of history, then, is that it teaches us what man has done and thus what man is.” – R. G. Collingwood

It is an approach very different from psychology, which typically focuses on more internal causes of behavior (the self, the brain) and tests ideas in artificial situations with only projections about what people might do in the real world – but both approaches are equally valid, different ways of trying to answer the same question.

And both psychology and history – particularly when considering a topic as charged as the second world war – have a foe in the hindsight bias. This particular flaw of human thinking is also known as the “I knew it all along” effect (or, if you are a sports fan, “Monday morning quarterbacking”), and we are warned against in with the idiom “hindsight is always 20/20”. Still, believing certain things were obvious all along remains a problem for both psychology – by undervaluing psychological findings as being “common sense” unworthy of funding or study – and history – by implying that people were stupid all along for making decisions that we can see now were clearly tragic mistakes.

We show hindsight bias any time that we know the outcome – of a historical event, of a scientific study – and declare that of course that outcome was a foregone conclusion; it couldn’t have been any other way. This is often illustrated – appropriately enough, for this class – with claims about what social psychology learned about World War II. For example, consider this one finding about fighting in the second world war:

“Better educated soldiers suffered more adjustment problems than less educated soldiers.”

It seems obvious, doesn’t it? And you can just imagine the dismissive complaints: Of course the better educated had a harder time adjusting! They’re from higher-class backgrounds, they’re used to the genteel atmosphere of college and white-collar work; they have no preparation for the dog-eat-dog world of the battlefield. The less educated soldiers would have come from harder backgrounds, more hardscrabble lives, used to violence with no niceties of human nature.

It sounds like common sense, albeit common sense with an awful lot of prejudice and political incorrectness we might prefer to dance around. But we don’t have to dance around any of it, because it’s completely incorrect. Actually, the better educated soldiers adjusted more easily than the lesser educated ones – and that seems obvious as well, because of course these are the more intelligent and more adaptable soldiers, and their parents can be relieve that the money spent on education turned out to be worthwhile outside the schoolroom walls.

This is the bane of psychologists, whose findings become dismissed as common sense; it is also a trap for historians, who must overcome their hindsight bias to understand why historical events unfolded as they did. It’s easy enough now to look back at Hitler’s decision to invade Russia as a fundamental mistake of splitting his army that ultimately cost him the war….but it might not have seemed like such a bad idea at the time. We can rail that the Allies’ refusal to bomb concentration camp crematoria was morally indefensible….but the cost-benefit ratio of such an action may have seemed very different then, than it does now that we have such a clear picture of what was at stake. As we step through the process of making moral decisions, the choice to resist or to obey, the decisions that may have ultimately won or lost a war, the most important thing we can do is remember that what seems so obviously the right course of action now, was never so obvious at the time.

And I can only hope that the need to be wary of hindsight will seem so obvious to my students as soon as I say it…and that by being so obvious, it will stick with them as we continue with the rest of the course.


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