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Balloon boy, hindsight bias, and the problem with raised hands

My Sociology 101 professor taught me something over ten years ago that has stuck with me ever since. I struggled in that class, and once again I raised my hand and expressed my confusion. "Kevin, you know the secret to academic success." Really? I was fighting for my B+ at the time. "You know what you don't know." Later I would learn that he was referring to meta cognition--thinking about thinking--knowing what you know and don't know.

Fast forward to fall 2009. I'm reviewing for a Hamlet identification test in which I supply a series of passages from the play and my students would be required to identify the speaker and the significance. Typically I would read a quotation and ask the class to volunteer an answer. When I'm at my laziest, I call on Student A, the one who raises a hand. She responds with the correct answer. When I think about it, this accomplishes very little for any of my students. The girl with the raised hand already knows the answer so reviewing that particular item does nothing more than affirm what she already knows she knows.

Student B doesn't raise his hand, even though he knows the answer. It's safer for him to let Student A answer.

Student C knows she does not know the correct answer and naturally wants to avoid exposure to her teacher and peers. She will not raise her hand. If we're lucky she will learn the correct answer from Student A, recognize that she has some studying to do and will prepare diligently for the exam. Another possibility is that she is discouraged, feels like she's just not good at English, and decides that Shakespeare is stupid. Either way, there is no mechanism for me to intervene.

I want to focus on Student D. He does not know the correct answer, but when student A reveals the correct answer, he thinks to himself, "Oh yeah, I knew that." He is a victim of what my colleague and AP Psychology teacher, Cammy Torgenrud, identified as hindsight bias: the tendency for people to have false memories of errant predictions. Hindsight bias and meta cognition do not get along.

Many of us were victims of hindsight bias during the balloon boy fiasco. I was eating lunch at the time when my wife IM'd me about it, so we spent the next 15 minutes watching the CNN feed in horror with millions of other gullible Americans.

At some point I did write, "He's hiding in the garage. I know the type. I was a hider as a kid." However later Ria Mengin who is an editor at The Salinas Californian posted on Facebook:

Reporter instincts say: The whole "my kid's in our UFO balloon!" thing was planned to get fame/sponsors.

I noticed my brain performing fantastic gymnastics to convince myself that I too had identified the family as a fraud. In truth, I was actually suffering confirmation bias, believing that the boy was like me when I was a boy. I liked to terrify my parents by hiding. I've gotten over that. My hindsight bias struck when I (Student D) pretended that I had recognized the family's fraud once I read Ria's (Student A) post on Facebook.

In my classes, Student D needs my attention. Not just because he's not prepared for the test, but more importantly, his mindset prevents him from recognizing that he's not prepared. I'd like to provide that attention before the test, not after. In a future post I will present a cool little piece of free technology that will help me accomplish this so we could all know what we don't know.


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