Reflections on the intersection of economics, history, politics, psychology and science

Hindsight Bias and the Logical Fallacies in the Gun Debate

“Why wasn’t the shooter stopped by the cops? They got a tip about him!” is a refrain we inevitably see right after the unfortunately way too many mass shootings in this county. It’s perhaps understandable, but it reminds us of the adage that “hindsight is 20/20” and more specifically illustrates what psychologists call hindsight bias, the idea that an event was predictable even though logically it would have been difficult to envisage beforehand. “I knew it all along” is a familiar refrain from people who never really could have known it all along. Hindsight bias also clouds our ability to recognize that in any given event, there is a wide asymmetry of information among people involved, and as such is particularly relevant in the ongoing gun control debate.

For example, in any crime, the criminal almost always has more information than the victim. They have the intention to commit such crime and the knowledge of how and when they will commit it, yet the victim is rarely privy to any of that information. Crime tends to be successful, even if later punished, because victims are caught “off guard.”

Of course, this phenomenon happens on a bigger scale as well. After 9/11, it because clear to all of us that terrorists could use an airplane as a piloted bomb, threatening more than just the passengers and crew on that plane. But it wasn’t obvious or very predictable beforehand because it had never happened before. The perpetrators had a lot more information than the victims about a new way to cause terror. So, it feels dumb to us now that we never had impenetrable cockpit doors before 9/11, but that is our hindsight bias at work.

Hindsight bias is particularly relevant in the aftermath of school shootings when some responded by criticizing how law enforcement failed to have seen this coming despite all of the “signs” and demanding better enforcement of existing laws. After any tragedy, it’s important to analyze what went wrong and study how to improve approaches to law enforcement, investigations, or any other matters that might mitigate future tragedies. However, it’s generally unfair to blame the local sheriff or the FBI for failing to stop the crime. Law enforcement officials get an overwhelming number of tips and complaints about individuals, so to imagine they will be able to have perfect foresight and identify ahead of time the specific individual who will commit such a crime (let alone when, where, and how) is unrealistic. We shouldn’t let the effort to improve crime prevention distract us from the more important issue, which is what policies would actually have the biggest impact on preventing future tragedies. Hindsight bias keeps us from crafting effective solutions for reducing gun violence because it leads us to believe we have or can develop the foresight needed to make simplistic or feel good solutions work. But we can’t and never will.

For example, we often hear the refrain that a “bad guy with a gun” is only stopped by a “good guy with a gun.” This sentiment is a perfect example of the logical fallacy of assumed foresight. A well-meaning person can buy a gun (and even be trained in its use), but they can’t buy foresight. The element of surprise almost always wins. Ronald Reagan was shot despite being surrounded by armed “good guys.” Fort Hood was full of armed “good guys,” yet two shootings occurred there. In the Las Vegas mass shooting, no one could have predicted that a shooter would rent a room in that particular hotel on that particular day and target that particular crowd. No number of armed “good guys” at the concert could have protected the victims or stopped the shooter before he did incredible harm because he had the advantage of foresight. If anything, imagine the chaos that would have ensued – and the additional lives lost – had a someone in the crowd had a gun, inevitably leading to a gun battle among the victims! Armed victims who are caught “off guard” and have little information about the real threat would no doubt have exacerbated the tragedy.

This logical fallacy is not a new one – we’ve perpetuated for many years the myth that guns have value to individuals for protection. It may sound appealing to know you are armed and therefore protected from anyone who would harm you. But the data suggests otherwise. If one recognizes hindsight bias, it’s fairly easy to understand why the moment one purchases a gun, he/she is statistically more likely to be injured or killed than before the purchase. It’s because we can’t buy foresight. As we cannot know where and when any criminal may strike, it is incredibly more likely that such weapon will be used against us somehow. People often say, “if someone were breaking into my home at night, I’d want a gun then.” Sure, I get that – I’d probably want one too…if that were the scenario with which we’re presented. But that’s a false choice. The real choice I can make now is to buy a gun today and keep it for likely many years on the hope that on one night (one I cannot predict), I will be ready and able to use it for defense. The risk of having such weapon for many years far outweighs the potential benefit of having it at exactly the right time, at the right place, and using it in the right way to protect oneself. Hindsight bias and the failure to recognize the asymmetry of foresight make us mistakenly believe that we will know when and how to react, so it causes us to downplay or ignore the very clear risks of long-term gun ownership. Albeit there are certainly stories of people thwarting a home burglar with their firearm, these are dwarfed by the number of stories where such home weapons are used – either intentionally or accidentally – to harm or kill the gun’s owner or their family.

A dramatic example of this logical fallacy applies to proposals to arm teachers in our schools. Even if teachers were incredibly well-trained in the use of firearms, we still can’t give them the weapon they really need – foresight! They would have to carry a gun around likely for many years on the statistically small chance that an incident would occur at their school, of course on a date and time and in a manner impossible to predict, and at such time be ready, willing, and able to act. In any such incident, the likelihood that they would be injured, killed, or disarmed themselves is so much greater as long as there is an asymmetry in the foresight of the criminals compared to the victims. Additionally, the fact that this teacher would have to carry a weapon for years before any statistically unlikely incident were to occur, the school faces the much more likely possibility that this weapon would be stolen or used – either by a teacher, student, or another person – to cause grave harm.

If we truly want to reduce the epidemic of gun violence in America, we must recognize our own biases and not perpetuate these logical fallacies to promote policies – including the proposal to arm teachers – which at best make no impact and at worst dramatically exacerbate the problem. So, unless we become able to read the minds of our fellow citizens (which, if we could, would no doubt bring up Constitutional privacy issues), we must accept that criminals will always have the advantage of foresight. And policymakers must recognize that the impact of this advantage is highly correlated with the destructive power of the weapon – a surprise knife attack and a surprise semi-automatic rifle attack naturally have different results. We are left with the fact that most impactful way to combat gun violence must be the wholesale reduction in the availability of weapons to which inevitably foresighted criminals will have access.