Why autopsies fail | PNAS


Learning from past experiences, especially failures, is essential to progress in human affairs. Knowing this, organizations, and especially governments, often perform post-mortems after important policies fail. Unfortunately, however, the combination of political pressure and psychological bias usually leads to the use of flawed social science methods, making study results limited and often misleading.


Most high-profile disasters are followed by calls to investigate what went wrong. Even before they start, calls to find missed warning signs and an explanation of why people haven’t “connected the dots” will be common. Unfortunately, however, the same combination of political pressure and failure to adopt good social science methods that contributed to the initial failure usually leads to postmortems that are seriously flawed. The high stakes mean that powerful players will have a strong incentive to see that certain conclusions are – and are not – reached. Most postmortems are also tainted with strong psychological biases, particularly the assumption that incorrect inferences must have been the product of wrong ways of thinking, premature cognitive closure, naïve use of hindsight and neglect of the comparative method. Given this experience, I predict that the coming investigations into the storming of the US Capitol on January 6, 2021 and the abrupt end of the Afghan government will stumble in many ways.


    • Accepted November 4, 2021.
  • This contribution is part of the special series of Inaugural Articles of the members of the National Academy of Sciences elected in 2021.

  • Author contributions: RJ wrote the article.

  • Reviewers: RK, Princeton University; RM, Brown University; and PS, Decision Research.

  • The author declares no competing interests.

Data availability

There is no data underlying this work.

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