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Hindsight Bias in World Ending Prophecies & Clinical Negligence Claims

By Principal Lawyer, Clinical Negligence

So the predictions were wrong and the world did not end on Saturday at 6 pm. The Earth carried on turning and we lived to the see the skateboarding dog on Britain's Got Talent. Phew! Harold Camping who prophecised Judgment Day now has some explaining to do.

People who have wrongly predicted the worlds' end have been studied by psychologists, most notably by Leon Festinger in his seminal book "When prophecy fails". Failed doomsday cults often deny that their predictions were made or that they were accurately reported.  This is known as "Hindsight Bias".

This got me thinking about hindsight bias in clinical negligence claims. This manifests itself when a doctor or nurse has to prepare a witness statement setting how they dealt with a patient some years before. If they have no or few records, the statement usually says "my invariable practice would be to..." or something like  "I would have said/done xyz because I always say/ do xyz".  Xyz is of course textbook best practice.

Is the doctor's memory reliable in this situation? The hindsight bias experiments conducted by psychologists would clearly indicate not. Such statements are actually examples of false memory syndrome and/or motivated forgetting.

Are the people who sign such statements simply liars or are they tricking themselves into believing that they always do the right thing 100% of the time? Judges usually give the witness the benefit of the doubt and rarely call witnesses outright liars. These hindsight bias models show that memory distortions and personal bias play a key role with regard to memory and statements made years after the event without corroborating contemporaneous documents are often highly unreliable.

James Bell is a Principal Clinical Negligence Solicitor at Slater and Gordon Lawyers.

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