After we interpret the information we take in from the world around us, we assess its significance. For example, when I hear that the purpose of the all hands meeting is to announce layoffs, I might think, "Maybe so, but my boss would never do that to my group." To believe that is to regard the layoff rumors as having little potential significance for me personally.
Assessing significance is the third stage of Jerry Weinberg's simplified version of Virginia Satir's Interaction Model of communication . These assessments are vulnerable to bias — systematic deviations from purely objective assessments. Cognitive 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, as they often do when wishful thinking is involved.
Here is Part I of a little catalog of examples of cognitive biases that affect attribution of significance in ways that contribute to wishful thinking.
- Backfire effect
- The backfire effect is a form of attitude polarization that arises when adherents of one particular viewpoint encounter evidence to the contrary. A response to disconfirming evidence that results in strengthened adherence to the original viewpoint, based on belief and without any substantial effort to refute the disconfirming evidence, constitutes the backfire effect. The effect excludes responses that entail energetic engagement with disconfirming evidence leading to logical, evidence-based refutation of that disconfirming evidence.
- Under the influence of this bias, people might express sentiments such as:
- "She's bluffing."
- "Yeah, well we can find just as many experts who will say otherwise."
- "I don't believe them because they're always saying what they think will advance their own interests." 
- "He can't be trusted, so don't worry about what he says."  .
- Illusory superiority
- This bias can Usually, when pondering a particular
cognitive bias, we think about its
effects when it acts alone. But
synergistic effects of multiple
biases can be far more important.lead us to believe that our own talents, character, abilities, and other attributes are superior to those of others. Although most research relating to this cognitive bias applies to individuals, my own experience suggests that groups are susceptible too. Groups subject to this bias tend to overestimate their ability to deal with risks, or to take on assignments that are beyond their abilities or exceed their capacity.
- Under the influence of this bias, people might express sentiments such as:
- "Even if that happens, we can deal with it."
- "Those results don't apply to us."
- "Yes, it happened to them, but it can't happen here."
- "Just because they failed, doesn't mean we'll fail. In fact, that's what creates the opportunity for us."
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More articles on Problem Solving and Creativity:
- The Perils of Piecemeal Analysis: Content
- A team member proposes a solution to the latest show-stopping near-disaster. After extended discussion,
the team decides whether or not to pursue the idea. It's a costly approach, because too often it leads
us to reject unnecessarily some perfectly sound proposals, and to accept others we shouldn't have.
- Clueless on the Concept
- When a team member seems not to understand something basic and important, setting him or her straight
risks embarrassment and humiliation. It's even worse when the person attempting the "straightening"
is wrong, too. How can we deal with people we believe are clueless on the concept?
- New Ideas: Judging
- When groups work together to solve problems, they eventually evaluate the ideas they generate. They
sometimes reject perfectly good ideas, while accepting some really boneheaded ones. How can we judge
new ideas more effectively?
- Solutions as Found Art
- Examining the most innovative solutions we've developed for difficult problems, we often find that they
aren't purely new. Many contain pieces of familiar ideas and techniques combined together in new ways.
Accepting this as a starting point can change our approach to problem solving.
- 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 other than logical. This can lead to erroneous assessments, because
the discovery story is not the solution.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming May 2: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: VII
- Narcissistic behavior at work prevents trusting relationships from developing. It also disrupts existing relationships, and generates toxic conflict. One class of behaviors that's especially threatening to relationships is disregard for the feelings of others. In this part of our series we examine the effects of that disregard. Available here and by RSS on May 2.
- And on May 9: Unethical Coordination
- When an internal department or an external source is charged with managing information about a large project, a conflict of interest can develop. That conflict presents opportunities for unethical behavior. What is the nature of that conflict, and what ethical breaches can occur? Available here and by RSS on May 9.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people 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.