Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 15, Issue 45;   November 11, 2015: Wishful Interpretation: I

Wishful Interpretation: I

by

Wishful thinking comes from more than mere imagination. It can enter when we interpret our own observations or what others tell us. Here's Part I of a little catalog of ways our wishes affect how we interpret the world.
Platform supply vessels battle the fire that was consuming remnants of the Deepwater Horizon oilrig in April 2010

Platform supply vessels battle the fire that was consuming remnants of the Deepwater Horizon oilrig in April 2010. This photo was taken by a U.S. Coast Guard MH-65C Dolphin rescue helicopter, which documented the fire while searching for survivors. Although organizational politics and pressure to meet financial objectives certainly influenced decision-makers, optimism bias might well have played a role. Photo courtesy United States Coast Guard. Read the final report on the incident, issued by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, "REPORT REGARDING THE CAUSES OF THE APRIL 20th 2010 MACONDO WELL BLOWOUT."

After we take in information from the world around us, we interpret it. For example, one (exceptionally simple) meaning of a message announcing an "all hands" meeting today at 3 PM might be, "The all hands meeting is at 3 PM." A more complicated interpretation, which also considers the manner of delivery of the announcement, might be, "This is a surprise meeting, on very short notice. Hmmm…"

Interpretation, the second stage of Jerry Weinberg's simplified version of Virginia Satir's Interaction Model of communication [1], is vulnerable to the effects of cognitive biases — systematic deviations from purely objective interpretation. These biases can be helpful, because they can lead us to important insights faster than objective, rational deduction can. And they can also mislead us, with serious and regrettable consequences.

Here's Part I of a little catalog of phenomena affecting interpretation in ways that contribute to wishful thinking.

Optimism bias
Among cognitive biases, one that's closely related to wishful thinking is optimism bias. It causes us to judge that, compared to others, we're less likely to experience a given undesirable event. Research suggests, albeit a bit less clearly, that optimism bias also causes us to believe that we're relatively more likely to experience a desirable event [2]. Optimism bias can thus cause us to be more likely to accept (or discover) interpretations that are relatively favorable, and be less likely to accept (or discover) less favorable interpretations.
For important matters, For important matters, proceed
slowly and thoughtfully when
making meaning of information
proceed slowly and thoughtfully when making meaning of information. Establish for yourself a minimum number of alternative interpretations required before you begin to focus on a single one. Because we rarely have trouble finding two interpretations, three or more alternatives seem to be necessary to compel thoughtful consideration. Teams and groups have advantages here, because their numbers help them develop alternatives more easily, especially if they can appoint a subgroup of "designated skeptics."
Framing effects
A framing effect is underway when the style, wording, or manner of presenting information affects how recipients interpret it. In the now-classic example, compare two descriptions of a medical procedure. The positive form: "It has significantly relieved 60% of patients." And the negative form: "It provided no significant relief for 40% of patients." These two descriptions have identical meaning, but patients listening to the positive form are more likely to elect the procedure. The "frame" affects how we interpret our observations. Framing effects are the basis of the "spin" techniques politicians and advertisers so often use.
To control your own wishful interpretations, try reframing observations so as to elicit alternatives. The effort can reveal that your original interpretation might need broadening. Reframing exercises are relatively easier for teams and groups, because they inherently have multiple perspectives. One can even imagine devising a "reframing game."

We'll continue next time with several more phenomena that cause us to systematically interpret what people say or do, or information we receive, to be in alignment with our wishes. First in this series | Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Wishful Interpretation: II  Next Issue

[1]
[2]
Susana Gouveia and Valerie Clarke, "Optimistic bias for negative and positive events," Health Education 101 (5), pp. 228-234, 2001.

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? rbrenTvvLddJrvOeTCwRyner@ChacNbeXCnDnlTNDUWevoCanyon.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:

Icelandic currentsRestarting Projects
When a project gets off track, we sometimes cancel it. But since canceling projects takes a lot of courage, we look for ways to save them if we can. Often, things do turn out OK, and at other times they don't. There's a third choice, between pressing on with a project and canceling it. We can restart.
Stuffed bearsStart a Project Nursery
In a Project Nursery, professionals from across the entire organization collaborate to conceive of new projects. When all organizational elements help decide which projects to investigate, the menu they develop best suits organizational needs and capabilities.
The Marx brothers: Chico, Harpo, Groucho and ZeppoTINOs: Teams in Name Only
Perhaps the most significant difference between face-to-face teams and virtual or distributed teams is their potential to develop from workgroups into true teams — an area in which virtual or distributed teams are at a decided disadvantage. Often, virtual and distributed teams are teams in name only.
Sherlock Holmes and Doctor WatsonHow to Make Good Guesses: Tactics
Making good guesses probably does take talent to be among the first rank of those who make guesses. But being in the second rank is pretty good, too, and we can learn how to do that. Here are some tactics for guessing.
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.

See also Project Management and Critical Thinking at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Srinivasa RamanujanComing 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.
A hot dog with mustard on a bunAnd on August 9: Counterproductive Knowledge Workplace Behavior: II
In knowledge-oriented workplaces, counterproductive work behavior takes on forms that can be rare or unseen in other workplaces. Here's Part II of a growing catalog. Available here and by RSS on August 9.

Coaching services

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

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.