EG say a sports team makes a terrible trade and loses their best player. Player then gets injured on new team. That injury doesn't make the decision to trade a good one, but someone claims it was.

I feel like there is a fallacy or a particular type of false logic, with a name, for this... just on the tip of my tongue... but I'm drawing a blank, and so is everyone I've asked (including some English majors).

Some more examples:

  • Bob is a college student who decides to stay up all night partying even though he has a midterm early the next morning. This is clearly a bad decision. However while at the party he meets Joe. Joe has an idea for a business, and after talking with Bob, the two of them start a business, and make millions of dollars. Just because Bob's decision to party all night resulted in making millions of dollars, it does not make the decision a good one.

  • George is broke, he has enough money to buy food for the day, but instead George decides to feed his gambling addiction, and buy a lottery ticket. This is clearly a bad decision. However George ends up winning the lottery, and has enough money to never go hungry again. Just because George's decision to buy a lottery ticket instead of food resulted in making millions of dollars, it does not mean that the decision he made to buy the ticket when he did with the knowledge he had was a good decision.

  • John is late to work, but decides to stop for a nice long breakfast at a diner on the way. This is clearly a bad decision, because his boss has made it clear to him that he will be fired if he is ever late again. While at the diner, John meets Emily. Emily and John fall madly in love with each other, and make each other more happy than either of them could imagine. They live happily ever after. Despite the ultimately positive outcome of John's decision, based on what he knew at the time the decision to stop for breakfast was still a bad decision.

  • 'We made the right mistake'. // 'Dodge a bullet' covers the avoidance of a bad outcome aspect, though not the requirement of a bad decision not proving costly. // This involves the 'post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy', where causality is unjustifiably attributed. " 'The outcome was good' ⇒ 'The prior event [/decision] was good' " // Note that your first example does not but the other three do directly cover moral issues ('good' is polysemous). Aug 23, 2023 at 11:43
  • I’m having trouble coming up with a definition of “bad decision” that ignores the consequences like you want to. I think the worst you can say is that these were risky decisions, and that you might have a lower risk tolerance than the people you describe, but that doesn’t make them bad decisions.
    – Ben Murphy
    Aug 24, 2023 at 4:59

3 Answers 3


The Historian's fallacy (in which "one assumes that decision makers of the past viewed events from the same perspective and having the same information as those subsequently analyzing the decision") mentioned in previous answer, or perhaps the fallacy of presentism (where "present-day ideas and perspectives are anachronistically introduced into depictions or interpretations of the past") probably are the best specific explanations of what's mentioned in the question. However, a bit more generally, the question illustrates rationalization, which is the process of justifying wrong or illogical behaviour. According to Funk, 1949, rationalization is “the process of thought by which one justifies a discreditable act, and by which one offers to oneself and the world a better motive for one's action than the true motive”.

  • This is definitely not presentism.
    – Old Pro
    Apr 25, 2012 at 23:39
  • I feel the "perhaps" qualifier used by @jqpat7 appropriately sets scope to his use of the definition in fleshing out a thorough answer to my question. I believe it's possible to correctly read the examples I posted in such a way that would suggest presentism, depending on the suggested tense of the actors actions.
    – Paul Hazen
    Apr 25, 2012 at 23:43
  • @OldPro, if the sports team owner starts saying "I was telling everyone at the time how Joe would get injured in the season", that seems more like presentism than Historian's fallacy. In any case, that's the circumstance I had in mind. Apr 25, 2012 at 23:47
  • @jwpat, your example would be more "lying" (or "prescient") than anything else. :-) Presentism is more about things like saying Thomas Jefferson was morally corrupt because he owned slaves. This historian's fallacy assumes people in the past had information they did not have but the historian does have; it misrepresents the facts of the historical point in time. Presentism accepts the facts of history but applies current moral judgements (for example) to them.
    – Old Pro
    Apr 26, 2012 at 0:01
  • 'Confirmation bias' is related.
    – Mitch
    Apr 26, 2012 at 1:39

What you are talking about is a fallacy, typically described by a phrase, not a word. I'm not exactly sure which one you are referring to. You could be thinking of Historian's fallacy or several of the others listed here. Or you may be thinking of the term "fallacy" or the phrase "false logic" itself.

  • I believe this should have been a comment on the question. Can you delete and respond with an answer explaining Historian's fallacy? I'd be happy to mark such a response as the answer. Simply linking to the answer without explaining it feels a bit like cheating to me. Thanks!
    – Paul Hazen
    Apr 25, 2012 at 23:16
  • 1
    @Paul, the question I answered (before you edited it) asked for a word and I gave you one, "fallacy". You also had only one example and it was ambiguous to me, so I couldn't pick the right fallacy. Someone else has gone on to explain the Historian's fallacy so I'll leave this here as it gives a broader reference for future readers of your question.
    – Old Pro
    Apr 25, 2012 at 23:32
  • Thanks. Ironically... the Historian's fallacy is something I suppose I have in some respect fallen prey to here... Despite the fact that after editing the question I got a correct answer, it does not negate the fact that editing the question as significantly as I did was a bad decision... #seeilearnedsomething But seriously, should've given you cred and posted another update to give historical clarity. "+1" to you sir.
    – Paul Hazen
    Apr 25, 2012 at 23:41

I am not so sure that this constitutes a fallacy. As they say You can't argue with succes. More generally, all decisions have to be made before all the facts are in, and are ideally made bearing in mind an accurate assessment of the likelihoods of all eventualities - although in practice this too is impossible. So an absolute assessment of decision quality at the time of the decision is itself impossible. In other words, it is not possible to state that X made a suboptimal decision tout court.

On the other hand, there is a degree of intersubjectivity. You are thinking of cases where "any reasonable person" would judge, hands down, that X made a horrible decision, flying in the face of good sense, decency, and whatnot, and lo and behold, it pans out for X ...X comes up smelling of roses.

It may be a bitter pill to swallow, but in view of what I said about the general impossibility of absolutely judging decision quality, you just have to concede that X gambled big and it paid off, this time.

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