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Can breakups among pairs of acquaintances be predicted? Or, like the proverbial Pole, in such situations we are wise only after the “damage”? These questions intrigued the authors of the paper recently published in Social Psychological Bulletin. In the article, the researchers look at whether the so-called “knowledge-after-the-fact” effect (hindsight bias) can also be observed in the conpaper of romantic breakups.
Romantic breakups are one of the most common human experiences. At some point in our lives, we almost all had to deal with the emotions associated with this event. Furthermore, while some exclusively observe couples parting around them without experiencing similar events, most of us will experience the heartbreak of a breakup at least once in our lives.
Relationship breakups often raise many questions that have no clear answers. Why did it happen the way it did? Who was at fault? Or could it have been foreseen how the situation would turn out, and was there any way to change the course of events? These issues are frequent participants of conversations with relatives, friends, and distant acquaintances. Often in such discussions, we hear statements such as: “I knew/hoped they would split up” or “It does not surprise me; it was to be expected”. However, is this possible to predict, or is it just a cognitive bias we have? April Bleske-Rechek and colleagues answer this question in a recent paper published in Social Psychological Bulletin.

What is hindsight bias?
The authors of the article titled “I ‘Knew’ They Wouldn’t Last: Hindsight Bias in Judgments of a Dating Couple,” were interested in the extent to which the so-called after-knowledge effect (hindsight bias) applies to the issue of romantic relationships. What exactly is hindsight bias? It can be shortly described as a tendency to consider a particular event more likely to occur, but only after it has occurred. Research shows that this cognitive bias can be observed in many conpapers, such as during witness testimony or when assessing the likelihood of rape or the risk of someone commiting suicide. Notably, the effect of after-the-fact knowledge is often associated with blaming the victim of tragic events for the course of events or assigning blame to the victim’s loved ones for failing to respond. After all, if the event was foreseeable, why didn’t anyone react in time?
In order to look at whether the after-knowledge effect also applies to assessments of the likelihood of romantic relationships, the researchers conducted two experimental studies with a total sample of more than 1,100 people (male and female college students and adult community members). The researchers were interested in the differences between younger and older respondents, assuming that relationship experience increases with age.

Separation, engagement, no information

In both studies, male and female respondents were first asked to read a short story about a relationship between two American university students. The story’s content was ambiguous; the relationship’s positive and negative aspects were described. Then, in the first study, participants were randomly assigned to one of two experimental conditions. In the first, male and female respondents were told that the couple they read about had separated after six months. In the second (control) condition, participants did not know how the relationship would continue. The pattern of the second study was similar. It differed only in adding a third experimental condition, in which the couple becomes engaged.
After reading the materials, respondents were asked to assess the likelihood of how the relationship described in the paper would or has turned out. In other words, the task was to determine how certain it was that the couple would or would not break up. In addition, the participants were also asked to rate the quality of the relationship they had read about. Because of this, the authors were able to test whether people who were aware of how the relationship turned out would be more likely to perceive the turn of events presented to them as more likely than those without the information on the relationship outcome.

Could this be foreseen?
The results of both studies presented were consistent. It turned out that those assigned to the breakup condition were significantly more likely to say that such a course of events was likely than participants in the control and positive conditions. Moreover, these respondents not only perceived the described relationship as of lower quality than those in the other two conditions but also rated the romantic relationship as generally unsuccessful. In other words, the information about the breakup largely affected their evaluation of the relationship and their confidence about its trajectory. The authors successfully showed that the effect of after-the-fact knowledge also applies to the issue of romantic relationships.

What is the significance of these results? According to the researchers’ words, the effects they presented may reduce the tendency to over-attribute blame for the breakup in romantic relationships. Because whether a breakup will or will not occur is significantly less obvious than it might seem…
More information:
Bleske-Rechek, A., Gunseor, M. M., & Nguyen, K. (2023). I “Knew” They Wouldn’t Last: Hindsight Bias in Judgments of a Dating Couple. Social Psychological Bulletin, 18, 1-22.

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