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Volume 15, Issue 46;   November 18, 2015: Wishful Interpretation: Part II

Wishful Interpretation: Part II

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Wishful "thinking," as we call it, can arise in different ways. One source is the pattern of choices we make when we interpret what we see, what we hear, or any other information we receive. Here's Part II of an inventory of ways our preferences and wishes affect how we interpret the world.
Darrelle Revis, cornerback in the U.S. National Football League

Darrelle Revis, an American football cornerback who plays for the New York Jets in the National Football League (NFL). Cornerback is a defensive position responsible for covering receivers, to defend against pass offenses and to make tackles. Revis is considered by most to be one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL. His spot on the field is nicknamed "Revis Island" for his ability to utterly prevent the opposing team's leading receivers from contributing to the offense. Revis' mastery of his position extends beyond speed, agility, and "football sense," to include a study of the psychology of the receivers he covers. He acknowledges that he uses their "tells" to guide his on-field decision-making. Photo by Jeff Kern, (CC) Generic 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

In the most recent part of our exploration of sources of wishful thinking, we examined how optimism bias and framing effects can affect how we interpret the data we receive. Here are three more possible sources of distorted interpretations.

Observer-expectancy effect
This phenomenon occurs (among other conditions) when message recipients unconsciously communicate their expectations to the message senders, resulting in senders altering their messages. For example, an executive might phrase a question to a subordinate in a way that inadvertently communicates a preferred response, which can cause the subordinate to slant the response accordingly.
It's almost certainly impossible to be continuously aware of how we might be communicating our own desires to people who are trying to impart information to us. If we want unvarnished truth, making clear to all how much we value unvarnished truth is perhaps the best we can do.
Cognitive ease
Cognitive ease is a measure of the effort required to maintain attention and process the data we receive. We experience cognitive ease as we process information when:
  • The information is familiar or related to something familiar
  • The information is clearly presented or presented in a familiar format
  • We're primed — already thinking along the same lines
  • We're feeling good
If we can easily find a meaning that fits the observation, then we're more likely to attribute that meaning to the observation. In other words, we have a tendency to see or hear what we like or want or are already thinking about.
It's sometimes It's sometimes important to find the
right meaning for an observation —
not just a meaning that fits
or a meaning we like
critical to find the right meaning for an observation — not just a meaning that fits or a meaning we like. In such circumstances, intentionally try to find subtle meanings you don't like. Subtle, unpleasant, or difficult-to-grasp meanings that can't be ruled out might be important and valid.
Misinterpreted tells
In the game of poker, a tell is a change in behavior or affect that some believe involuntarily reveals players' assessments of their hands [1]. In this way, behavioral observations can convey information about another person's inner state. The concept has been more broadly applied — albeit by different names — in acting, negotiation [2], con games, sales, gridiron football [3], and even psychotherapy [4].
Tells are easily misinterpreted. Sweating can indicate nervousness — or excessive heat; touching one's own nose can indicate lying — or an itch. Even more insidiously, someone who believes you might be relying on tells can simulate a tell so as to deceive. Unless you're an expert, or trained by an expert, making meaning from physical behavior or affect is risky business.

We make meanings for our observations quickly, and most of the time, that's fine. When the circumstances call for care, though, and time permits, proceed slowly. Get a second opinion. And a third. And maybe another after that. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Suppressing Dissent: Part I  Next Issue

[1]
Ed Brayton, "Poker, Psychology and the Science of Tells," November 16, 2013, at patheos.com.
[2]
Richard Shore, "Three Tricks That Make Negotiations Work," Forbes Leadership Forum, January 31, 2014.
[3]
Armen Keteyian, "Revis Island," on the CBS news magazine program 60 Minutes, October 18, 2015.
[4]
"Signs of Lying in Body Language," at Psychologia.com.

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