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: Group Dynamics
- When a team relies on group discussion alone to evaluate proposals for the latest show-stopping near-disaster,
it exposes itself to the risk that perfectly sound proposals might be inappropriately rejected. The
source of some of this risk is the nature of group discussion.
- Backtracking in Incremental Problem Solving
- Incremental problem solving is fashionable these days. Whether called evolutionary, incremental, or
iterative, the approach entails unique risks. Managing those risks sometimes requires counterintuitive action.
- How to Foresee the Foreseeable: Preferences
- When people collaborate on complex projects, the most desirable work tends to go to those with highest
status. When people work alone, they tend to spend more time on the parts of the effort they enjoy.
In both cases, preferences rule. Preferences can lead us astray.
- Rationalizing Creativity at Work: II
- Creative thinking at work can be nurtured or encouraged, but not forced or compelled. Leaders who try
to compel creativity because of very real financial and schedule pressures rarely get the results they
seek. Here are examples of tactics people use in mostly-futile attempts to compel creativity.
- Managing Wishful Thinking Risk
- When things go wrong, and we look back at how we got there, we must sometimes admit to wishful thinking.
Here's a framework for managing the risk of wishful thinking.
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- When manipulators try to manipulate others, they're attempting to unscrupulously influence their targets to decide or act in some way the manipulators prefer. But some targets manage to outwit their manipulators. Available here and by RSS on November 29.
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- Most of what we know about managing projects is useful and effective, but some of what we know "just ain't so." Identifying the fallacies of project management reduces risk and enhances your ability to complete projects successfully. Even more important, avoiding these traps can demonstrate the value and power of the project management profession in general, and your personal capabilities in particular. In this program we describe ten of these beliefs. There are almost certainly many more, but these ten are a good start. We'll explore the situations where these fallacies are most likely to expose projects to risk, and suggest techniques for avoiding them. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:
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- 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.