The Eyes in the Back of Your Head Work Pretty Well

Why we tell ourselves stories about the past.


It’s a rule of human society that the past always seems more straightforward than the present. This is largely because the past has the gratifying trait of having already happened. Unfortunately for those of us stuck in the present, the proper course of action is rarely so obvious at the time we actually have to do it. It’s this divide between now and then that gives us the fundamental problem of decision-making: Actions and decisions take place now. But we don’t know how they’ll turn out until later on.


So we’re left to the try and make the best of it. And one of the curious things that humans do in the face of this problem is to spend a good deal of time trying to make sense of the decisions that they’ve already made. Though this is one of the topics of perennial interest to psychologists, a forthcoming paper by Fiery Cushman of Harvard gives a fresh take on the matter. Cushman’s paper is on rationalization. He asks, “Is it rational?” We humans love to give reasonable-sounding explanations for why we did something. Yet these explanations may or may not have anything to do with what really caused us to act in a certain way. We nonetheless stick by them. Why would the brain be designed to concoct explanations that do not necessarily conform to reality?


Cushman’s insight comes from a rather complicated picture of how the mind works. For example, if you assume that there is only one mode in which humans make decisions—rational speculation—then rationalization makes no sense. But as Cushman notes, there’s more going on when we decide. In addition to the intellectual anatomy of a decision, there are also emotions, social roles and obligations, habits, and instincts that all get their say. What rationalization does is allow all of these different faculties to convene after a decision has been made and get on the same page about where that decision came from and whether they should do the same thing again in the future. He calls this “representational exchange.” This meeting has something of the flavor of the 2015 Disney film, Inside Out, in which the various characters of emotion struggle for control over the protagonist’s behavior. Even if the calm one is in charge, the angry one can still make his views known.


This tendency isn’t always adaptive though. For example, when we look back on something that’s already happened and explain why it did, we are often more confident in our story than we should be. This applies to almost anything in the past. Not only are we adept Monday-morning quarterbacks, we’re also levelheaded peace-time prime ministers. In the days leading up to World War I, it is clear from journalists’ accounts that no one on the ground expected the imminent eruption of war. It’s only looking back on the events, knowing how they turned out, that we feel the inevitability of the world’s descent into chaos upon the Archduke’s assassination. Once we know the punchline, all of the noise falls away and we see only the unobstructed road of the intelligible narrative leading to the present. Hindsight may see with the clarity of 20/20, but it isn’t always looking at the right thing.


There is also more at stake here than just making decisions. There is the problem of meaning. To paraphrase Kierkegaard: Life must be lived forward, but understood in reverse. Again, this is what makes decisions so hard. We have to make them now. But it’s only later on that we figure out how good they were. This is one of those cases where the eyes in the back of our head are more useful than the ones in the front.


Mostly, this power of retrospection comes from the fact that the most negative experiences often turn out to be the most meaningful. A story is only as powerful as the obstacle the protagonist has had to overcome. That’s why a recovering addict’s claim to five years sober is moving—because, wow, you should’ve seen them before. In that moment of pain, we rarely step back to reflect on how the experience is going to shape our future selves. We just feel the pain. But pain, unlike meaning, is bound to the present. Once it’s gone, we’re liberated from its grasp and can appreciate the experience in the broader context of our lives.


There’s another psychological principle at play here as well: the endowment effect. This is a classic principle in behavioral economics, which says that we like what we have more than we would if we didn’t have it. Your teddy bear may be the same make and model as a thousand others on the shelf, but it’s yours. And say what you will of your present life circumstances. They are also yours.


Retrospection acts to plot the course from where you’ve been to where you are now. Naturally, there are plenty of forks in the road you could’ve taken to end up somewhere else. And thank goodness you didn’t take them, otherwise who knows where you would’ve ended up. This sort of counterfactual thinking is one of the most versatile tools in our cognitive arsenal. There are many paths that could have taken us somewhere else. But there’s only only path takes us to the here-and-now. For better or worse, we tend to see that path as gleaming with the sheen of preordination.


Which goes to show that the eyes in the back of our heads work pretty well, all things considered. They not only help us to make decisions going forward, but they help us to validate the ones we’ve undertaken in the past. This process is, in part, what gives us identity; we are the main character of our own story. We also happen to be the foremost critical authority on that character, as we have many explanations for what she did and what she could’ve done better. The explanations that we come up with aren’t always the right ones. But thankfully, as Cushman showed, they don’t need to be.


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Originally published on Psych Today.

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"The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge."

-Bertrand Russell