The benefit of hindsight and how it affects the psychology of sports betting

By Andrew D

March 17, 2023

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The benefit of hindsight is a glorious and oft-misunderstood phenomenon. In fact, it is so powerful that it can totally warp our memories of events and feelings that we had about them beforehand. In sports betting, the perception of luck can easily swing both ways and our subconscious cognitive biases can push us away from the clear, rational path if we let them. To combat this, we need to develop a successful, consistent betting strategy that recognises those biases and accounts for them.

But before we get ahead of ourselves and dive into the fascinating studies that show how hindsight affects us, especially when sports betting, we had better explain what we mean and answer the fundamental question:

What is hindsight?

`the dictionary definition of hindsight is as follows:


The ability to understand an event or situation only after it has happened:

  • With (the benefit/wisdom of) hindsight, I should have taken the job.

  • In hindsight, it would have been better to wait.

Hindsight is effectively the misapprehension that almost all of us have at one point or another that we could or should have seen something coming beforehand. That it was somehow signposted if we had only been looking in the right direction and paying attention.

It may be that some events would have been foreseeable if we had given them the requisite attention and credence in advance. But people tend to use the phrase 'with the benefit of hindsight' as a kind of rueful acceptance of something it would have been nice to be able to predict in advance but which passed them by.

It is a complicated phenomenon that is known by professionals as 'hindsight bias' but is sometimes, fabulously referred to as 'Creeping Determinism'.

Sounds like an 80s goth band
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Hindsight bias is one of the most heavily researched, and commonest cognitive biases in the fascinating realm of human psychology. It seems that we subconsciously apply it to almost any situation and that it can drastically affect our memories of events and subsequent actions.

The root cause is complicated...

It's the brain! Obviously, it's complicated. It's the most sophisticated entity that has ever existed on this planet. And the added layers of complexity created by the nurture that the individual involved experiences cloud matters even further. But deep down, all human brains have evolved in the same way and respond to certain situations and stimuli in the same way. So, with that in mind, let's delve deeper.

Hindsight bias in action

Try this experiment for yourself

Look at the list of all of the upcoming NBA fixtures. Go through whatever stats and trends you usually do when starting the process of picking your bets for the weekend. Do your best to predict the results and make note of what you think the odds will be for each game. If you're a line-bettor then predict lines. If you prefer team props, then have at it. Just anticipate the outcomes of each and the odds you give that outcome of happening. Do enough of them that it would be very difficult to remember them all without looking. Now put the notes away and try not to think about them again.

Enjoy the games, go about your business for a week, and then look at the same fixtures again, but not your original predictions just yet. The chances are you already know the outcomes of each of them if you were paying attention to the games and results.

Make a new list of the odds you think you wrote down the first time

If you happen to remember some then leave those alone but, hopefully, there are a few where you don't remember what you wrote. It is almost guaranteed that, now that you know what actually happened, your list of what you think you predicted the first time around will be noticeably different. And it is highly likely that your new list will be much closer to the real outcomes than your original predictions.

The first time you tried you were using nothing but your knowledge of the game and the previous form. Knowing who was out injured or which team was in the middle of a huge run of games on the road. You were predicting the odds objectively and no matter how hard you try, you can never do that again once you know the actual outcomes. Your mind will always steer you closer to the actual answer subconsciously.

That is hindsight bias

Hindsight bias

Further proof of the power of the subconscious mind

Thomas Gilovich, an eminent psychology professor at the University of Stanford performed several revealing experiments in an attempt to understand the psychology of sports betting. Why were so many sports bettors insistent upon clinging to losing betting strategies?

Using a soccer game that happened to have been won by a total fluke, he was able to show that neither the bettors who backed the eventual winners nor those who lost would choose to change their wagers if given the opportunity. Unsurprisingly, he found that the winning bettors would happily make the same bet again if given the chance. Of course, they would. What was more interesting to note was that they tended to attribute the win to their brilliant, deductive foresight and not the fact that the game was decided in a random, arbitrary fashion.

Conversely, it seems the losing bettors attributed their loss to sheer bad luck and would also stick to their guns if given the chance of a 'do-over'.

As with any other group of people, hindsight bias makes sports bettors reluctant to admit that they were wrong. When offered the benefit of hindsight, neither of the groups considered their bets to have been incorrect.

And this causes a significant issue when assessing potential bets objectively

Hindsight bias clouded the minds of both the winners and the losers, preventing them from analysing their strategies with clear logic and rationale.

  • Successful bettors believe their bets are successful because their process of prediction is sound and rarely attribute successes to blind luck

  • Losing bettors are much more inclined to blame bad luck and rarely question the betting processes and strategies that led them to place the losing bet

Gilovich proved that a bettor’s opinion about the success or failure of their previous bets would almost always influence how they chose to bet in the future. They over-simplified the outcome in their minds and believed that the result was actually quite predictable with their superior knowledge of the sport and their careful studying of the form and its myriad nuances.

Remarkably, both groups chose to raise their stakes for the next bet that they were prompted to make...

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How does hindsight bias affect us when sports betting?

Neuroeconomics is the branch of neuroscience science that studies and tries to explain the human decision-making process. It shines a fascinating spotlight on the exact behaviour that we engage in when gambling. so much so that we had a collective 'lightbulb' moment in The Jump Hub office when researching and discussing this article and the following facts were revealed to us:

  • Experiences leading to making money are processed by the brain the same way as chemically-induced highs

This probably comes as no surprise to those of us who have felt the euphoria of picking a winner, but it may be an association that we have never put together before. With hindsight (see what we did there?) we can see that, of course, we feel good when we win. That's the whole point. It's not really about the competition because we're betting against a nameless, faceless entity in an online sportsbook. It's the feeling that we get when we win that drives us to do it. Let's face it, if most of us were gambling to remain afloat financially then we would have sunk years ago...

However, as with all things in life, it seems, we have a Yin and a Yang. Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. There are 2 sides to every coin and the following is also true:

  • Situations involving financial loss are processed the same way as a mortal danger

The brain instructs the body to release chemicals and hormones that put us in a 'fight or flight' state when we lose money. The experience is no different chemically from that of an early version of man waking from a nap to find a sabre-toothed tiger eyeing him up as a tasty snack 300,000 years ago.

No wonder it feels so terrible to lose wagers

This explains a great deal, like why people so often chase after losses by immediately placing new, reckless bets. They are simply trying to start the euphoria-inducing chemicals flowing again. They feel much nicer. They're fun to experience. Well, they're euphoric to experience in fact! Perhaps the highest, most pleasant mental state that humans can experience.

So the bad news is that those of us who like to lay bets on a regular basis are essentially walking a fine line between euphoria and the panicked desolation of loss.

And therein lies the true nature of gambling

We are not really gambling with money, that is merely the commodity that allows us to participate in the game.

What we are really gambling with is our state of mind...

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How do we incorporate an understanding of hindsight bias into our sports betting strategy?

Now that we have a greater understanding of what hindsight bias is, and how it affects our perception of reality, it's time to develop a consistent way to address it and even incorporate it into our sports betting strategy.

We need to formulate a successful methodology that we utilise prior to laying any bets. One that, like our betting rules for protecting ourselves against problem gambling, is incontrovertible and unbreakable. It pays to observe the way that 'sharp' professional sports bettors approach the issue of laying wagers. Here are some things that we have learned from the professional gamblers we know personally or have interacted with along this crazy journey.

When laying wagers, successful sports bettors do the following:
  • Have a proven system in place and clarity in their decision-making process

  • Place an equal weight on 'lucky' wins and 'unlucky' losses

  • Absorb all the relevant data, even if it doesn’t support their hunches and opinions

  • Realise that they didn’t always see an event coming and that it would have been almost impossible for anyone to do so

  • Never overreact to insufficient sample sizes.

  • Look at the same statistics they always do and apply them to their tried and tested sports betting strategy before placing any bets

The first step to combatting hindsight bias is in knowing exactly what it is and how it affects our judgement. Try to step outside of yourself and your ego when evaluating your bets after the fact. Be honest about why you may have won or lost a bet and accept when circumstances were beyond your ability to predict.

Objectivity is the key

Three kinds of hindsight bias

The 3 accepted kinds of hindsight bias are as follows:

1. Memory distortion

When we are swayed to misremember our previous choices and beliefs and veer towards the actual outcomes in our memories

2. Inevitability  

When we are of the opinion an event was unavoidable and 'destined' to happen, no matter what

3. Foreseeability

When we believe, or claim we knew an event was going to occur beforehand like some kind of gut feeling or premonition

Once we learn to recognise the phenomenon, we can spot hindsight bias in all kinds of places. Watch the pundits and commentators closely next time you tune in to watch an NBA game. They will almost always talk up the chances of one or other of the sides pre-game and almost dismiss the potential of the other.

If the team that they backed goes on to lose the game, they are suddenly less likely to mention their earlier predictions and are full of wisdom about the errors made or the bad calls that occurred. Again, individual personalities come heavily into play in this kind of situation, as egos and pride are powerful motivators.

Nobody likes to be proven wrong

Especially on their so-called specialist subject. Even less so if they are former players themselves and are somewhat averse to losing...

Final thoughts

It's rather difficult to put into words just how revelatory the experience of writing this article has been. As a group of individuals who have all experienced issues with addiction of all kinds, the similarities between gambling and substance abuse are tangible.

In fact, they're exactly the same as far as the brain is concerned

Sports betting can clearly be a highly addictive pastime if you are burdened with a personality that is susceptible to temptations of all kinds. But now we understand why. It is the euphoria that we are chasing, presumably in the form of dopamine that is released into our system when we win money. Some of use may lean towards the more masochistic side of life and actually enjoy the danger of losing and having the 'panic' chemicals and adrenaline released into our bodies. Again, we're all different in subtle ways but we hope this article has shown that we're also all the same.

In The Jump Hub office, we have learned that solidarity and being able to discuss these kinds of issues are crucial to surviving with our minds (and bank balances) intact when diving into the heady, hedonistic world of sports betting. To make it easier for us to control those urges when logic threatens to abandon us, we contrived a list of rules that we all swore never to break and we'd like to share them with you. Feel free to incorporate them into your own gambling habits and add any others that will help you to stay in control.

Rules we agree never to break:
  • Never bet under the influence

  • Do not place a quick, reckless bet to take away the sting of one you just lost

  • Betting on your own team is not allowed

  • Protect your bankroll!

  • Assess your habits and spending regularly

  • When the fun stops, stop

We're off to live in a monastery and eat tofu...

Peace out xxx

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When the fun stops, stop

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