I’m excited to announce the first episode of Mind Tricks Radio with Dr. Tyler Ralston, a Clinical Psychologist in Honolulu, Hawaii. Dr. Ralston spoke with me about the cognitive model of guilt, especially as it relates to trauma.  Dr. Ralston is co-author of Treating PTSD in Battered Woman, a step-by-step manual for therapists and counselors. If you wish to listen to the Podcast, you can check on the Podcast page of my website. Mind Tricks Radio can also be found in Apple iTunes.

Dr. Ralston spoke about several types of highly irrational thoughts, or cognitions, that lead people to experience tormenting guilt. The problem with irrational guilt is that, when left untreated, it can cause immense suffering, self-loathing, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and other serious problems. Dr. Ralston emphasized how Hindsight Bias is a core aspect of guilt that can permeate through other guilt-related irrational thoughts.

Simply stated, Hindsight Bias is the belief that one should or could have acted differently in a situation to affect a different outcome. It’s considered a thinking error because people do not have the same information before an event occurs that they have AFTER the event has occurred. It’s easy to tell oneself what she could have, or should not have done, after the fact because information about the outcome is biasing her thought process.

Dr. Ralston explains that Hindsight Bias is quite common with battered women. Often, women will beat up on themselves for making, or not making specific decisions while involved with an abusive partner.  Most typically, a woman might berate herself for not leaving a relationship after multiple episodes of abuse. She looks back, in hindsight, and asks herself “How could I have possibly believed that things would change with him?”

Of course, with only the information she had at the time, she made the best decision she could under the circumstances. Maybe he begged, pleaded, and promised things would change. And perhaps, because there were kids involved, financial insecurity, fears of ostracism by family, etc., she decided to give him another chance rather than end things on the hope he would change. Later, with the benefit of hindsight, and perhaps some good therapy, she may learn about red flags and warning signs that explain an abuser’s behavioral patterns.  But even gaining new knowledge and understanding provides information AFTER THE FACT that didn’t exist for the woman when the abuse was taking place.

Dr. Ralston gives another graphic illustration of a tragic situation involving a soldier in combat.  In the story, a soldier is firing at the enemy and his weapon runs out of ammo. The soldier ducks away, retreating, unable to continue fighting.  His buddy nearby fires a few more rounds, and then becomes mortally wounded.

It’s bad enough the soldier lived with the guilt that “I survived” when his buddy didn’t make it. This is sometimes referred to as Survival Guilt, and it’s common when a person is the one who “survives” an ordeal when his friends, family, fellow soldiers, or associates did not.  But in this situation, the soldier realized later that he “could have picked up a weapon from a dead enemy soldier” and started shooting back, instead of retreating, thus potentially saving his buddy.

The problem with the soldier’s logic, and what makes it an example of Hindsight Bias, is the soldier didn’t realize until after the incident that enemy weapons were present.  Even if grabbing the enemy’s weapon was theoretically an option, it wasn’t an option for the soldier at the time of the incident because he didn’t realize enemy weapons were laying around until afterwards.  Further, even IF the soldier realized at the time that he could have grabbed a weapon from a dead enemy, there’s no guarantee it would have saved his buddy. Any number of other outcomes are possible: the enemy’s weapon could have been damaged or out of ammo; the soldier could have been shot while stepping out into the line of fire to retrieve the weapon; or the buddy would have been shot regardless of the soldier’s efforts to grab the enemy’s weapon and fire back.

It’s always important to recognize when we are using Hindsight Bias as a means of beating up on ourselves with guilt.  The most important question we might ask ourselves, when feeling guilty, is the following:

  • Looking back at the situation, with ONLY what I knew, and did not know AT THE TIME, was the decision I made, or the actions I took, reasonable and justified?

I imagine that Dr. Ralston would argue that most of the time, a person’s actions were reasonable and justified given what they knew, or did not know, at the time.

For more information about Dr. Ralston and his Clinical Psychology practice, go to www.ralstontherapy.com