Apophenia is the experience of perceiving meaningful patterns in data that do not actually manifest those patterns. Klaus Conrad, a German neurologist and psychiatrist, introduced the term in the 1950s, and although its meaning has evolved somewhat since then, there's little doubt that it describes a real human experience.
For example, people tend to believe that craps players who make several "passes" (winning throws) are "hot." They believe that there is a causal connection between recent past throws and the outcome of the next throw. In fact, if the game is honest, there are no meaningful patterns at all, at least none that have any causal relation to the outcome of the next throw. Each throw is random and independent of all others.
Apophenia is related to — or similar to or identical to — a rather numerous collection of behavioral phenomena, including conspiracy theories, the clustering illusion, pareidolia, and the whimsically named but quite serious Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy. I'll let you explore this territory on your own (see links below). For now, let's take a look at some of the manifestations of apophenia and its cousins in the workplace.
- Celebrity leaders and visionaries
- Sometimes leaders or visionaries acquire reputations within their organizations based on past performance. A belief takes hold: "She's was so brilliant on Marigold that she must have the magic touch." But in most organizations, success is organizational — many people and processes contribute. Celebrity leaders or visionaries might have made significant contributions, but many others did too, and chance almost certainly played a role.
- Outcasts, pariahs, and other lowlifes
- Just as some become mythically heroic, others become outcasts or pariahs, based on perceived patterns that are actually irrelevant. Many a career has been destroyed by those who attribute meaning to supposed patterns beyond what the evidence actually justifies. Some wily managers — or in professional sports, wily coaches — have built successful organizations by prowling the marketplace for good people erroneously tagged as inept or untalented.
- Political plots
- When we participate Just as some become mythically
heroic, others become outcasts
or pariahs, based on perceived
patterns that are actually
irrelevantin workplace politics, we must necessarily interpret information that's inherently ambiguous. Interpreting as malicious and personally motivated the actions of someone you don't know well might be incorrect. Not everything such people do is aimed at you.
- Location, location, location
- Some believe that locating a facility in a fashionable district is important to business success. They point to geographical clustering of their competitors as justification for their belief. For some businesses, a particular address can be important. But is it truly necessary for your business?
When someone has exhibited a tendency to identify meaningful patterns when none exist, we have a tendency to believe that they are exhibiting a propensity for apophenia. But beware. That belief itself might be an example of apophenia. Top Next Issue
For those who wish to pursue this topic, check out these sources:
- Pareidolia is the psychological phenomenon typified by seeing images of animals or faces in clouds, or hearing hidden messages in audio recordings played in reverse.
- The clustering illusion is the tendency to perceive erroneously that small samples from random distributions have significant "streaks" or "clusters."
- The Texas sharpshooter fallacy is a logical fallacy in which an assertion about the existence of a pattern is based on similarities among pieces of information that have no relationship to one another, ignoring any contradictory data.
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More articles on Critical Thinking at Work:
- The Hypothetical Trap
- Politicians know that answering hypothetical questions is dangerous, but it's equally dangerous for
managers and project managers to answer them in the project context. What's the problem? Why should
you be careful of the "What If?"
- Working Lunches
- To save time, or to find a time everyone has free, we sometimes meet during lunch. It seems like a good
idea, but there are some hidden costs.
- Ten Reasons Why You Don't Always Get What You Measure: I
- One of the "truisms" floating around is that "You get what you measure." Belief
in this assertion has led many to a metrics-based style of management, but the results have been uneven
at best. Why?
- Difficult Decisions
- Some decisions are difficult because they trigger us emotionally. They involve conflicts of interest,
yielding to undesirable realities, or possibly pain and suffering for the deciders or for others. How
can we make these emotionally difficult decisions with greater clarity and better outcomes?
- Projection Errors at Work
- Often, at work, we make interpretations of the behavior of others. Sometimes we base these interpretations
not on actual facts, but on our perceptions of facts. And our perceptions are sometimes erroneous.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 13: Reframing Revision Resentment: II
- When we're required to revise something previously produced — prose, designs, software, whatever, we sometimes experience frustration with those requiring the revisions. Here are some alternative perspectives that can be helpful. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
- And on December 20: Conceptual Mondegreens
- When we disagree about abstractions, such as a problem solution, or a competitor's strategy, the cause can often be misunderstanding the abstraction. That misunderstanding can be a conceptual mondegreen. Available here and by RSS on December 20.
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- Person-to-Person Communications: Models and Applications
- When we talk, listen, send or read emails,
read or write memos, or when we leave or listen to voice mail messages, we're communicating person-to-person.
And whenever we communicate person-to-person, we risk being misunderstood, offending others, feeling
hurt, and being confused. There are so many ways for things to go wrong that we could never learn how
to fix all the problems. A more effective approach avoids problems altogether, or at least minimizes
their occurrence. In this very interactive program we'll explain — and show you how to use —
a model of inter-personal communications that can help you stay out of the ditch. We'll place particular
emphasis on a very tricky situation — expressing your personal power. In those moments of intense
involvement, when we're most likely to slip, you'll have a new tool to use to keep things constructive.
Read more about this program. Here's a date for this
- Embassy Suites by Hilton Jacksonville Baymeadows, 9300 Baymeadows
Road, Jacksonville, Florida, 32256, USA: January 15, 2018,
Monthly Meeting, Northeast Florida Chapter of the Project Management Institute. Register now.
- Embassy Suites by Hilton Jacksonville Baymeadows, 9300 Baymeadows Road, Jacksonville, Florida, 32256, USA: January 15, 2018, Monthly Meeting, Northeast Florida Chapter of the Project Management Institute. Register now.
- Ten Project Management Fallacies: The Power of Avoiding Hazards
- Most of what we know about managing projects is useful and effective, but some of what we know "just ain't so." Identifying the fallacies of project management reduces risk and enhances your ability to complete projects successfully. Even more important, avoiding these traps can demonstrate the value and power of the project management profession in general, and your personal capabilities in particular. In this program we describe ten of these beliefs. There are almost certainly many more, but these ten are a good start. We'll explore the situations where these fallacies are most likely to expose projects to risk, and suggest techniques for avoiding them. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:
- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.