Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 15, Issue 51;   December 23, 2015: Wishful Significance: II

Wishful Significance: II

by

When we're beset by seemingly unresolvable problems, we sometimes conclude that "wishful thinking" was the cause. Wishful thinking can result from errors in assessing the significance of our observations. Here's a second group of causes of erroneous assessment of significance.
Louis Pasteur in 1885

Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) at work in his laboratory. Painting by Albert Edelfelt (1854-1905), oil on canvas. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

We began last time to explore how we can err when assessing the significance of observations. We saw that the significance of an observation is the set of implications and consequences that follow from it, where the key word is follow. We like to believe that we deduce the implications and consequences from evidence and clear reasoning, but we don't always work that way, especially under pressure. Here are three phenomena that can distort assessments of significance.

Dunning-Kruger effect
The Dunning-Kruger effect leads to confusion between confidence and competence, and between cautious prudence and incompetence, both of which distort estimations of competence. We then assess the significance of information based on the manner of delivery, rather than the credibility of the messenger. If the messenger is non-sentient, we assess significance based on immediacy, suddenness, or directness — the non-sentient analogs of "confidence."
For example, a report written in a confident style, well-documented, and presenting conclusions without acknowledging uncertainties, can be more influential than an equally well-drafted report presenting the same conclusions but also clearly explaining the uncertainties.
Optimism bias
This bias is the tendency to underestimate the likelihood of unwelcome events befalling us personally, compared to the likelihood of similar events befalling others. It can cause errors in estimating risk probabilities. See "Wishful Interpretation: I," Point Lookout for November 11, 2015.
Under the influence of this bias people might express sentiments such as:
  • No need for concern, that will never happen
  • No need for concern, that will never happen twice in a row
  • Yes, but they won't realize it until it's too late to respond
Semmelweis effect
The Semmelweis Wishful thinking can result from
errors in assessing the significance
of our observations, because we
don't always assess significance
logically from objective evidence
effect is the tendency to reject new approaches or theories not on the basis of disconfirming evidence, but because they contradict established practice and belief. It's named for a Hungarian physician, Ignac Semmelweis (1818-1865), who proposed in 1847 that high maternal mortality rates in a Vienna maternity ward were due to physicians treating mothers directly after performing autopsies without washing their hands. This practice seems evidently abhorrent now, but the germ theory of disease wasn't firmly established until Pasteur's work 15 years later. As the story goes, Semmelweis met fierce resistance because of the essence of his theory, but that interpretation of the cause of the resistance has been discredited [Nuland 1979]. Still, the name has stuck. The Semmelweis effect can cause us to resist change even in the presence of mounting evidence of the need for it.
Under the influence of the Semmelweis effect, people might express sentiments such as:
  • It didn't work that one time, but let's try again. I'm sure it will work out.
  • If you're right, then we just wasted two months. You must be wrong.
  • We don't have the resources for that. To get this job done, we agreed we must take a few shortcuts.

Deducing implications of observations is difficult. Demand evidence. Be logical. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Call in the Right Expert  Next Issue

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!

Read Kruger and Dunning's original paper, courtesy the American Psychological Association.

For more about the Dunning-Kruger Effect, see "The Paradox of Confidence," Point Lookout for January 7, 2009; "How to Reject Expert Opinion: II," Point Lookout for January 4, 2012; "Devious Political Tactics: More from the Field Manual," Point Lookout for August 29, 2012; "Overconfidence at Work," Point Lookout for April 15, 2015; "Wishful Thinking and Perception: II," Point Lookout for November 4, 2015; "Cognitive Biases and Influence: I," Point Lookout for July 6, 2016; and "The Paradox of Carefully Chosen Words," Point Lookout for November 16, 2016.

Footnotes

[Nuland 1979]
Sherwin B. Nuland. "The Enigma of Semmelweis — an Interpretation," Journal of The History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, vol. 34 (3), pp. 255-272, 1979. Back

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenNMPFypnmfTJpewyhner@ChacxTlhTZGZzekYkYmXoCanyon.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 Problem Solving and Creativity:

Something from Abraham, from Mark and from HennyAbraham, Mark, and Henny
Our plans, products, and processes are often awkward, bulky, and complex. They lack a certain spiritual quality that some might call elegance. Yet we all recognize elegance when we see it. Why do we make things so complicated?
Horns of a dilemmaChoices for Widening Choices
Choosing is easy when you don't have much to choose from. That's one reason why groups sometimes don't recognize all the possibilities — they're happiest when choosing is easy. When we notice this happening, what can we do about it?
The Johari WindowAssumptions and the Johari Window: II
The roots of both creative and destructive conflict can often be traced to the differing assumptions of the parties to the conflict. Here's Part II of an essay on surfacing these differences using a tool called the Johari window.
In-flight portrait of the Apollo 13 Environmental Control SystemProject Improvisation Fundamentals
Project plans are useful — to a point. Every plan I've ever seen eventually has problems when it contacts reality. At that point, we replan or improvise. But improvisation is an art form. Here's Part I of a set of tips for mastering project improvisation.
Ice on Challenger's launch pad hours before the launchDesign Errors and Groupthink
Design errors cause losses, lost opportunities, accidents, and injuries. Not all design errors are one-offs, because their causes can be fundamental. Here's a first installment of an exploration of some fundamental causes of design errors.

See also Problem Solving and Creativity, Critical Thinking at Work and Cognitive Biases at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Mistletoe growing in abundance in the Wye Valley, WalesComing April 25: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: VI
Narcissistic behavior at work distorts decisions, disrupts relationships, and generates toxic conflict. These consequences limit the ability of the organization to achieve its goals. In this part of our series we examine the effects of exploiting others for personal ends. Available here and by RSS on April 25.
A shark of unspecified speciesAnd on 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.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenLXLdyZlVlWcgwwmBner@ChacybMotQJmwIZInsegoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, 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.

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.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
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.