Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 15, Issue 1;   January 7, 2015: The Power and Hazards of Anecdotes: II

The Power and Hazards of Anecdotes: II

by

Anecdotes are powerful tools of persuasion, but with that power comes a risk that we might become persuaded of false positions. Here is Part II of a set of examples illustrating some hazards of anecdotes.
Melrose Diner, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The Melrose Diner, Philadelphia, Penn­syl­va­nia, is an iconic diner — some say the iconic diner — in South Philadelphia. To really understand the place, read Robert Huber's fascinating 2011 piece from Philadelphia Magazine. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith, courtesy U.S. Library of Congress.

We began last time to explore the power and hazards of anecdotes when used as tools of persuasion, examining how two different cognitive biases, the Availability Heuristic and the Focusing Illusion, could lead to disadvantageous outcomes when anecdotes are involved. We continue now with another more complex example of a hazard of anecdotes.

That hazard arises from what information economists call information cascades. Combining information cascades, cognitive biases, and the properties of anecdotes, we can better understand how muddled thinking and wrong ideas propagate through organizations to become the bases for dominant — but tragically incorrect — ways of thinking about issues.

Information cascades occur when rational individuals disregard the contra-indications of their private information and instead mimic the choices or actions of others. For example, suppose you're seeking a restaurant for lunch upon arriving in an unfamiliar town. You see two restaurants, A and B. A is recommended by your travel guide, but it's fairly empty. B is busy, but it doesn't appear in your travel guide. Choosing to lunch in B, despite the travel guide's recommendation, can be an example of the effects of an information cascade, because your decision is influenced by the choices of those who preceded you, despite the information, or lack of information, in the travel guide. B's popularity might actually be the result of a number of similar decisions, following uninformed random choices by the first few diners, rather than an indication of superior dining [1].

In most models of information cascades, the decision-makers are assumed to act rationally, but in some variations of the concept, that assumption is relaxed. The relaxation of the rationality assumption enables introduction of cognitive biases into the mix, as a means of explaining otherwise mysterious collective behavior.

One cognitive bias of special interest in connection with information cascades is the Availability Heuristic, which leads us to overestimate the likelihood or importance of some attributes of a situation, when those attributes are easy to observe, easy to imagine, or easy to recall. That's where anecdotes can play an important role.

The power of The power of anecdotes
makes some attributes
of a situation easy to
remember and easy to
transmit to others
anecdotes makes some attributes of a situation easy to remember and easy to transmit to others, beyond their actual importance in the situation. In effect, anecdotes amplify the effects of the Availability Heuristic. And in combination with non-rational variations of the information cascade, anecdotes and the Availability Heuristic enable non-rational choices — muddled thinking — to propagate through an organization in a self-sustaining way, capable of resisting rational attempts to dissuade the group from its poor collective choices.

When this happens in public discourse, and especially when the media is playing a role in propagating misconceptions, the phenomenon is known as an availability cascade [2]. In the organizational analog described above, anecdotes play the media's role. Have you seen this phenomenon in your organization? First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Avoid Having to Reframe Failure  Next Issue

[1]
Banerjee, Abhijit V., "A Simple Model of Herd Behavior," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 107 (3), 797-818, 1992.
[2]
Kuran, Timur, and Cass Sunstein, "Availability Cascades and Risk Regulation," Stanford Law Review, 51 (4), 683-768, 1999.

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenJhVAGVtCklzwSCrSner@ChacrwwBGSAPYYueKappoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Workplace Politics:

A section of the walls of Conwy Castle showing a battered plinthHow to Undermine Your Subordinates
People write to me occasionally that their bosses undermine them, but I know there are bosses who want to do more undermining than they are already doing. So here are some tips for bosses aspiring to sink even lower.
An actual deck chair recovered from the sunken liner TitanicThe Deck Chairs of the <i>Titanic</i>: Obvious Waste
Among the most futile and irrelevant actions ever taken in crisis is rearranging the deck chairs of the Titanic, which, of course, never actually happened. But in the workplace, we engage in activities just as futile and irrelevant, often outside our awareness. Recognition is the first step to prevention.
Allied leaders at the Yalta Conference in February, 1945Devious Political Tactics: More from the Field Manual
Careful observation of workplace politics reveals an assortment of devious tactics that the ruthless use to gain advantage. Here are some of their techniques, with suggestions for effective responses.
Two hermit crabs in their snail shellsThe Perils of Limited Agreement
When a group member agrees to a proposal, even with conditions, the group can move forward. Such agreement is constructive, but there are risks. What are those risks and what can we do about them?
Rosemary Woods, President Richard Nixon's personal secretaryYet More Obstacles to Finding the Reasons Why
Part III of our catalog of obstacles encountered in retrospectives, when we try to uncover why we succeeded — or failed.

See also Workplace Politics and Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Artist's concept of possible colonies on future mars missionsComing June 28: Tackling Hard Problems: I
Hard problems need not be big problems. Even when they're small, they can halt progress on any project. Here's Part I of an approach to working on hard problems by breaking them down into smaller steps. Available here and by RSS on June 28.
Artist's depiction of a dust storm on Mars with lightningAnd on July 5: Tackling Hard Problems: II
In this Part II of our look at solving hard problems, we continue developing properties of the solution, and look at how we get from the beginning to the end. Available here and by RSS on July 5.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenFtuHUKpYBsMdNlHiner@ChacTLGLPfSPfiQDqniooCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople 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. Here are some upcoming dates for this program:

Creating High Performance Virtual Teams
Many Creating High Performance Virtual Teamspeople experience virtual teams as awkward, slow, and sometimes frustrating. Even when most team members hail from the same nation or culture, and even when they all speak the same language, geographic dispersion or the presence of employees from multiple enterprises is often enough to exclude all possibility of high performance. The problem is that we lead, manage, and support virtual teams in ways that are too much like the way we lead, manage, and support co-located teams. In this program, Rick Brenner shows you how to change your approach to leading, managing, and supporting virtual teams to achieve high performance using Simons' Four Spans model of high performance. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
On 14The Race to the Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
Please donate!The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
21st Century Business TravelAre your business trips long chains of stressful misadventures? Have you ever wondered if there's a better way to get from here to there relaxed and refreshed? First class travel is one alternative, but you can do almost as well (without the high costs) if you know the tricks of the masters of 21st-century e-enabled business travel…

Beware any resource that speaks of "winning" at workplace politics or "defeating" it. You can benefit or not, but there is no score-keeping, and it isn't a game.

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics!
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
My free weekly email newsletter gives concrete tips and suggestions for dealing with the challenging but everyday situations we all face.
A Tip A DayA Tip a Day arrives by email, or by RSS Feed, each business day. It's 20 to 30 words at most, and gives you a new perspective on the hassles and rewards of work life. Most tips also contain links to related articles. Free!
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.