In my patent policy seminar at Boston University Law School, we recently studied hindsight bias and how it can play-out in the innovation sphere. Professor Gregory Mandel at Albany Law School has a pair of great empirical papers on the topic here and here. Mandel concludes that a juror’s knowledge of the invention makes the juror much more likely to believe that the invention would have been obvious.
To reach a proper non-obvious conclusion, the decision-maker must step backward in time to a moment when the invention was unknown. Unfortunately, Humans are cognitively incapable of ignoring what they have learned, as required for the proper ex ante analysis.
In class, I followed-suit and gave the students a test of their own hindsight bias. In one group, students were given a problem and were also told how it was solved. The other group was simply given the problem. Both groups were asked to rate the nonobviousness of a solution.
Although not statistically significant because of the small seminar size, my class results closely followed Mandel’s results. Students who did not know of the solution were more likely to think that a solution was nonobvious. However, after students learned how the problem was solved, they were then more likely to think that the solution was obvious. This is the crux of hindsight bias.
- Something that makes the results even stronger is that before the class, all the students were assigned the Mandel hindsight bias reading and they also knew that the topic of the day was hindsight bias.
- Professor Joseph Miller at Lewis & Clark Law School is working on this issue as well — he gave me the idea for this specific problem-solution.
- Peter Zura discusses hindsight bias here.