Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 15, Issue 43;   October 28, 2015:

Wishful Thinking and Perception: I

by

How we see the world defines our experience of it, because our perception is our reality. But how we see the world isn't necessarily how the world is.
The "Face on Mars" as seen by Viking 1 in 1976, compared to the MGS image taken in 2001

The "Face on Mars" as seen by Viking 1 in 1976 (top), compared to the Mars Global Surveyor image taken in 2001 (bottom). When the image was first released, it set off a flurry of speculation among those unaware of the dangers of apophenia or its cousin, pareidolia. The idea of a face carved on Mars by aliens took root, and even led to the release of a film, Mission to Mars, starring Tim Robbins, Gary Sinise, and Don Cheadle. To this day, the phrase face on Mars gets over 548 million hits at Google, which is most respectable for a thoroughly debunked illusion. Photos courtesy U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Viking mission and Mars Global Surveyor mission.

Let's begin our exploration of wishful thinking at the beginning, where we take in information about the world. After we receive information from the world — from our environment and from the people in it — we process that information. We can regard the early stages of that process as intake, which includes choosing where to acquire data, actually acquiring it with our sensors (eyes, ears, touch, and so on), and processing that data in the sensors, in the brain, and in the connections between sensors and brain. Because the world is so complex, we must be selective, and we can't process all the data we acquire. So we do our best. The result is inevitably an incomplete representation of the world.

And that's where things begin to get interesting.

To reduce the volume of data, we take shortcuts that introduce systematic distortions and misrepresentations. Many of these shortcuts (but not all) are among what psychologists call cognitive biases. When we want the world to be a certain way, these shortcuts and biases help us see things that way. That's how they can contribute to wishful thinking.

Here are some of the known phenomena that contribute to wishful thinking by affecting the data we take in.

Confirmation bias
Our preconceptions and wishes can affect how we search for information, how we process it, and how we recall it. Our wishes can even affect what questions we ask. This phenomenon is known as confirmation bias.
Examine your research process. Did you search only for what you hoped you'd find? Or did you also ask the questions that a skeptic would have asked?
Attentional bias
The focus of our attention can be biased by what we've been attending to recently, by what we're familiar with, by what we like, or by what we understand most easily. Biased attention yields a distorted view of the overall situation.
To gain insight into what you might have overlooked, consider what you've been exploring recently, your likes, your familiarities, and what you find easy to understand. That's where your wishes are. Then look elsewhere. That's where you'll find what you wish wasn't so — or what never occurred to you at all.
Seeing patterns that aren't there
Some cognitive Biased attention yields
a distorted view of the
overall situation
biases result in noticing patterns that don't actually exist: among them are the clustering illusion, the hot hand fallacy, pareidolia, and apophenia. [Brenner 2014] When we have wishes to be fulfilled, we're more likely to see patterns that support those wishes.
Seeing false patterns is misleading enough, but when we use them to guide us in gathering more data, the false patterns can reinforce themselves, which can make them seem even more plausible. Did you use your observations of patterns to guide you in gathering further information? Did you first verify that the patterns you saw were real?

We'll continue next time with more sources of perceptual distortion that can lead to wishful thinking. First in this series  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Wishful Thinking and Perception: II  Next Issue

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For more about apophenia, see "Apophenia at Work," Point Lookout for March 14, 2012, and "Cognitive Biases and Influence: II," Point Lookout for July 13, 2016.

Footnotes

[Brenner 2014]
Richard Brenner. "Scope Creep, Hot Hands, and the Illusion of Control," Point Lookout blog, February 26, 2014. Available here. Back

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