Apophenia is the experience of perceiving meaningful patterns in data that do not actually manifest those patterns. Klaus Conrad, a German neurologist and psychiatrist, introduced the term in the 1950s, and although its meaning has evolved somewhat since then, there's little doubt that it describes a real human experience.
For example, people tend to believe that craps players who make several "passes" (winning throws) are "hot." They believe that there is a causal connection between recent past throws and the outcome of the next throw. In fact, if the game is honest, there are no meaningful patterns at all, at least none that have any causal relation to the outcome of the next throw. Each throw is random and independent of all others.
Apophenia is related to — or similar to or identical to — a rather numerous collection of behavioral phenomena, including conspiracy theories, the clustering illusion, pareidolia, and the whimsically named but quite serious Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy. I'll let you explore this territory on your own (see links below). For now, let's take a look at some of the manifestations of apophenia and its cousins in the workplace.
- Celebrity leaders and visionaries
- Sometimes leaders or visionaries acquire reputations within their organizations based on past performance. A belief takes hold: "She was so brilliant on Marigold that she must have the magic touch." But in most organizations, success is organizational — many people and processes contribute. Celebrity leaders or visionaries might have made significant contributions, but many others did too, and chance almost certainly played a role.
- Outcasts, pariahs, and other lowlifes
- Just as some become mythically heroic, others become outcasts or pariahs, based on perceived patterns that are actually irrelevant. Many a career has been destroyed by those who attribute meaning to supposed patterns beyond what the evidence actually justifies. Some wily managers — or in professional sports, wily coaches — have built successful organizations by prowling the marketplace for good people erroneously tagged as inept or untalented.
- Political plots
- When we participate Just as some become mythically
heroic, others become outcasts
or pariahs, based on perceived
patterns that are actually
irrelevantin workplace politics, we must necessarily interpret information that's inherently ambiguous. Interpreting as malicious and personally motivated the actions of someone you don't know well might be incorrect. Not everything such people do is aimed at you.
- Location, location, location
- Some believe that locating a facility in a fashionable district is important to business success. They point to geographical clustering of their competitors as justification for their belief. For some businesses, a particular address can be important. But is it truly necessary for your business?
When someone has exhibited a tendency to identify meaningful patterns when none exist, we have a tendency to believe that they are exhibiting a propensity for apophenia. But beware. That belief itself might be an example of apophenia. Top Next Issue
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For those who wish to pursue this topic, check out these sources:
- Pareidolia is the psychological phenomenon typified by seeing images of animals or faces in clouds, or hearing hidden messages in audio recordings played in reverse.
- The clustering illusion is the tendency to perceive erroneously that small samples from random distributions have significant "streaks" or "clusters."
- The Texas sharpshooter fallacy is a logical fallacy in which an assertion about the existence of a pattern is based on similarities among pieces of information that have no relationship to one another, ignoring any contradictory data.
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More articles on Critical Thinking at Work:
- Critical Thinking and Midnight Pizza
- When we notice patterns or coincidences, we draw conclusions about things we can't or didn't directly
observe. Sometimes the conclusions are right, and sometimes not. When they're not, organizations, careers,
and people can suffer. To be right more often, we must master critical thinking.
- The Fundamental Attribution Error
- When we try to understand the behavior of others, we often make a particularly human mistake. We tend
to attribute too much to character and disposition and too little to situation and context. When we
seek a better balance, we can adopt a more accepting view of events around us.
- Nine Positive Indicators of Negative Progress
- Project status reports rarely acknowledge negative progress until after it becomes undeniable. But projects
do sometimes move backwards, outside of our awareness. What are the warning signs that negative progress
might be underway?
- On the Risk of Undetected Issues: II
- When things go wrong and remain undetected, trouble looms. We continue our efforts, increasing investment
on a path that possibly leads nowhere. Worse, time — that irreplaceable asset — passes.
How can we improve our ability to detect undetected issues?
- Still More Things I've Learned Along the Way
- When I have an important insight, or when I'm taught a lesson, I write it down. Here's another batch
from my personal collection.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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- Some cognitive biases can cause people in collaborations to have inaccurate understandings of what each other is doing. Confirmation bias and self-serving bias are two examples of cognitive biases that can contribute to disjoint awareness in some situations. Available here and by RSS on January 22.
- And on January 29: Higher-Velocity Problem Definition
- Typical approaches to shortening time-to-market for new products usually involve accelerating problem solving. Accelerating problem definition can also help. Available here and by RSS on January 29.
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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.