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:
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- We usually think of quibbling as an innocent swan dive into unnecessary detail, like calculating shares
of a lunch check to the nearest cent. In debate about substantive issues, a detour into quibbling can
be far more threatening — it can indicate much deeper problems.
- Most of us follow paths through our careers, or through life. We get nervous when we're off the path.
We feel better when we're doing what everyone else is doing. But is that sensible?
- Interviewing the Willing: Strategy
- At times, we need information from each other. For example, we want to learn about how someone approached
a similar problem, or we must interview someone about system requirements. Yet, even when the source
is willing, we sometimes fail to expose critical facts. How can we elicit information from the willing
- What have you learned today? What has enriched you, changed your understanding of the world, or given
you a new view of history or the future? Learning something new every day is a worthy goal.
- When Fixing It Doesn't Fix It: II
- When complex systems misbehave, repairs can require deep thought, inspiration, and careful reasoning.
Here are guidelines for a systematic approach to repairing complex systems.
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