Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 15, Issue 43;   October 28, 2015: Wishful Thinking and Perception: I

Wishful Thinking and Perception: I

by

How we see the world defines our experience of it, because our perception is our reality. But how we see the world isn't necessarily how the world is.
The "Face on Mars" as seen by Viking 1 in 1976, compared to the MGS image taken in 2001

The "Face on Mars" as seen by Viking 1 in 1976 (top), compared to the Mars Global Surveyor image taken in 2001 (bottom). When the image was first released, it set off a flurry of speculation among those unaware of the dangers of apophenia or its cousin, pareidolia. The idea of a face carved on Mars by aliens took root, and even led to the release of a film, Mission to Mars, starring Tim Robbins, Gary Sinise, and Don Cheadle. To this day, the phrase face on Mars gets over 6.28 million hits at Google, which is most respectable for a thoroughly debunked illusion. Photos courtesy U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Viking mission and Mars Global Surveyor mission.

Let's begin our exploration of wishful thinking at the beginning, where we take in information about the world. After we receive information from the world — from our environment and from the people in it — we process that information. We can regard the early stages of that process as intake, which includes choosing where to acquire data, actually acquiring it with our sensors (eyes, ears, touch, and so on), and processing that data in the sensors, in the brain, and in the connections between sensors and brain. Because the world is so complex, we must be selective, and we can't process all the data we acquire. So we do our best. The result is inevitably an incomplete representation of the world.

And that's where things begin to get interesting.

To reduce the volume of data, we take shortcuts that introduce systematic distortions and misrepresentations. Many of these shortcuts (but not all) are among what psychologists call cognitive biases. When we want the world to be a certain way, these shortcuts and biases help us see things that way. That's how they can contribute to wishful thinking.

Here are some of the known phenomena that contribute to wishful thinking by affecting the data we take in.

Confirmation bias
Our preconceptions and wishes can affect how we search for information, how we process it, and how we recall it. Our wishes can even affect what questions we ask. This phenomenon is known as confirmation bias.
Examine your research process. Did you search only for what you hoped you'd find? Or did you also ask the questions that a skeptic would have asked?
Attentional bias
The focus of our attention can be biased by what we've been attending to recently, by what we're familiar with, by what we like, or by what we understand most easily. Biased attention yields a distorted view of the overall situation.
To gain insight into what you might have overlooked, consider what you've been exploring recently, your likes, your familiarities, and what you find easy to understand. That's where your wishes are. Then look elsewhere. That's where you'll find what you wish wasn't so — or what never occurred to you at all.
Seeing patterns that aren't there
Some cognitive Biased attention yields
a distorted view of the
overall situation
biases result in noticing patterns that don't actually exist: among them are the clustering illusion, the hot hand fallacy, pareidolia, and apophenia[1]. When we have wishes to be fulfilled, we're more likely to see patterns that support those wishes.
Seeing false patterns is misleading enough, but when we use them to guide us in gathering more data, the false patterns can reinforce themselves, which can make them seem even more plausible. Did you use your observations of patterns to guide you in gathering further information? Did you first verify that the patterns you saw were real?

We'll continue next time with more sources of perceptual distortion that can lead to wishful thinking. First in this series | Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Wishful Thinking and Perception: II  Next Issue

For more about apophenia, see "Apophenia at Work," Point Lookout for March 14, 2012, and "Cognitive Biases and Influence: II," Point Lookout for July 13, 2016.

[1]
For more, see "Scope Creep, Hot Hands, and the Illusion of Control," Point Lookout for February 26, 2014.

52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenZioszWtoBvshHuGyner@ChacsbwUKSezmcsbzKoMoCanyon.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 Project Management:

Water bottlesAn Agenda for Agendas
Most of us believe that the foundation of a well-run meeting is a well-formed agenda. What makes a "well-formed" agenda? How can we write and manage agendas to make meetings successful?
President Harry S. Truman, and Gen. Douglas MacArthur, meeting at Wake Island, 14 October 1950Ground Level Sources of Scope Creep
We usually think of scope creep as having been induced by managerial decisions. And most often, it probably is. But most project team members — and others as well — can contribute to the problem.
An artist's conception of a planetary accretion diskWhy Scope Expands: II
The scope of an effort underway tends to expand over time. Why do scopes not contract just as often? One cause might be cognitive biases that make us more receptive to expansion than contraction.
Lt. Gen. Donald Kutyna, Ret., when he was Commander of the U.S. Space CommandMore Obstacles to Finding the Reasons Why
Retrospectives — also known as lessons learned exercises or after-action reviews — sometimes miss important insights. Here are some additions to our growing catalog of obstacles to learning.
FlamesHow to Get Out of Firefighting Mode: II
We know we're in firefighting mode when a new urgent problem disrupts our work on another urgent problem, and the new problem makes it impossible to use the solution we thought we had for some third problem we were also working on. Here's Part II of a set of suggestions for getting out of firefighting mode.

See also Project Management and Problem Solving and Creativity for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Probably not the kind of waiting we have in mind hereComing July 26: Strategic Waiting
Time can be a tool. Letting time pass can be a strategy for resolving problems or getting out of tight places. Waiting is an often-overlooked strategic option. Available here and by RSS on July 26.
Srinivasa RamanujanAnd on August 2: Linear Thinking Bias
When assessing the validity of problem solutions, we regard them as more valid if their discovery stories are logical, than we would if they're less than logical. This can lead to erroneous assessments, because the discovery story is not the solution. Available here and by RSS on August 2.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrensrApJFXmBKJmPNWBner@ChacOIGsgqHSNZESCDnKoCanyon.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

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 a 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 a date for this program:

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.

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
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…
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
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.