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 situationbiases 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?
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More articles on Project Management:
- Films Not About Project Teams: II
- Here's Part II of a list of films and videos about project teams that weren't necessarily meant to be
about project teams. Most are available to borrow from the public library, and all are great fun.
- Remote Facilitation in Synchronous Contexts: III
- Facilitators of synchronous distributed meetings (meetings that occur in real time, via telephone or
video) can make life much easier for everyone by taking steps before the meeting starts. Here's Part
III of a little catalog of suggestions for remote facilitators.
- Ground Level Sources of Scope Creep
- We usually think of scope creep as having been induced by managerial decisions. And most often, it probably
is. But most project team members — and others as well — can contribute to the problem.
- Projects as Proxy Targets: II
- Most projects have both supporters and detractors. When a project has been approved and execution begins,
some detractors don't give up. Here's Part II of a catalog of tactics detractors use to sow chaos.
- Why Scope Expands: II
- The scope of an effort underway tends to expand over time. Why do scopes not contract just as often?
One cause might be cognitive biases that make us more receptive to expansion than contraction.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming 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.
- And on February 5: Unrecognized Bullying: I
- Much workplace bullying goes unrecognized. Three reasons: (a) conventional definitions of bullying exclude much actual bullying; (b) perpetrators cleverly evade detection; and (c) cognitive biases skew our perceptions so we don't see bullying as bullying. Available here and by RSS on February 5.
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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.