After returning to Spain after his discovery of the New World, Christopher Columbus was dining with some nobles. One noble approached him and said:
“Even if you had not discovered the West Indies, another fine Spaniard would have gone to discover it anyway.”
Columbus did not respond and merely smiled. He then asked for an egg, which he placed on the table and asked:
“I bet that no one can make this egg stand by itself.”
All the nobles tried but were unsuccessful and the egg would continue to fall down. Columbus stepped forward and grabbed the egg, which he tapped on the table so that one end would be cracked and flattened. The egg would now stand on its flattened base.
Although the nobles initially complained that they knew that was the solution, the message was loud and clear: once the feat is done, everyone knows how to do it.
This is known in psychology as the historian’s fallacy – a logical fallacy that can be summarised in the words: “I told you so”. Essentially, people assume that people had the same information in the past or that they would not have made the same mistake if they were placed in such a situation. It is another example of cognitive dissonance where the brain finds conflict between a problem and information that could have prevented said problem (which the other person did not have at the time). Therefore, the brain immediately convinces itself that it would have made the right decision as it already knows the answer. This means that we are almost incapable of putting ourselves in other people’s shoes. We label those people as idiots, because they apparently had the same information (they did not) and still could not make the right decision.
People never realise that given the foreknowledge we have now, the Americans would have known about Japan’s plan for attacking Pearl Harbour or that Germany would not have invaded Russia. Although they say “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, we have a tendency to think that people in the past were stupid and we would never make the same mistakes.
Hindsight is 20/20.