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:
- Finger Puzzles and "Common Sense"
- Working on complex projects, we often face a choice between "just do it" and "wait, let's
think this through first." Choosing to just do it can seem to be the shortest path to the goal,
but it rarely is. It's an example of a Finger Puzzle.
- Interviewing the Willing: Tactics
- When we need information from each other, even when the source is willing, we sometimes fail to expose
critical facts. Here are some tactics for eliciting information from the willing.
- If Only I Had Known: I
- Have you ever regretted saying something that you wouldn't have said if only you had known just one
more little fact? Yeah, me too. We all have. Here are some tips for dealing with this sticky situation.
- Wacky Words of Wisdom: V
- Adages, aphorisms, and "words of wisdom" are true often enough that we accept them as universal.
They aren't. Here's Part V of some widely held beliefs that mislead us at work.
- Anticipatory Disappointment at Work
- Disappointment is usually unpleasant, and sometimes benign. But when it occurs before we have evidence
of bad news — when it is anticipatory — disappointment can be unnecessary and expensive.
What is anticipatory disappointment? What are the risks?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming February 8: Kerfuffles That Seem Like Something More
- Much of what we regard as political conflict is a series of squabbles commonly called kerfuffles. They captivate us while they're underway, but after a month or two they're forgotten. Why do they happen? Why do they persist? Available here and by RSS on February 8.
- And on February 15: Four Razors for Organizational Behavior
- Deviant organizational behavior can harm the people and the organization. In choosing responses, we consider what drives the perpetrators. Considering Malice, Incompetence, Ignorance, and Greed, we can devise four guidelines for making these choices. Available here and by RSS on February 15.
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