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

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

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!

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

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

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenIyeJIiAfnGdKlUXrner@ChacsxirZwZlENmHUNHioCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

This article in its entirety was written by a 
          human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.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.

This article in its entirety was written by a human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.

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 Project Management:

The Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill BridgeThe Cheapest Way to Run a Project Is with Enough Resources
Cost reduction is so common that nearly every project plan today should include budget and schedule for several rounds of reductions. Whenever we cut costs, we risk cutting too much, so it pays to ask, "If we do cut too much, what are the consequences?"
Example of an unsecured driver-side floor mat trapping the accelerator pedal in a 2007 Toyota Lexus ES350Risk Management Risk: I
Risk Management Risk is the risk that a particular risk management plan is deficient. It's often overlooked, and therefore often unmitigated. We can reduce this risk by applying some simple procedures.
Dunlin flock at Nelson Lagoon, AlaskaNonlinear Work: Internal Interactions
In this part of our exploration of nonlinear work, we consider the effects of interactions between the internal elements of an effort, as distinguished from the effects of external changes. Many of the surprises we encounter in projects arise from internals.
Two F-22A raptors line up for refuelingSymbolic Self-Completion and Projects
The theory of symbolic self-completion holds that to define themselves, humans sometimes assert indicators of achievement that either they do not have, or that do not mean what they seem to mean. This behavior has consequences for managing project-oriented organizations.
Ammi Visnaga, a nile weed that has medicinal valueDown in the Weeds: II
To be "down in the weeds," in one of its senses, is to be lost in discussion at a level of detail inappropriate to the current situation. Here's Part II of our exploration of methods for dealing with this frustrating pattern so common in group discussions.

See also Project Management and Problem Solving and Creativity for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

What most of us think of when we think of checklistsComing February 28: Checklists: Conventional or Auditable
Checklists help us remember the steps of complex procedures, and the order in which we must execute them. The simplest form is the conventional checklist. But when we need a record of what we've done, we need an auditable checklist. Available here and by RSS on February 28.
Adolf Hitler greets Neville Chamberlain at the beginning of the Bad Godesberg meeting on 24 September 1938And on March 6: Six More Insights About Workplace Bullying
Some of the lore about dealing with bullies at work isn't just wrong — it's harmful. It's harmful in the sense that applying it intensifies the bullying. Here are six insights that might help when devising strategies for dealing with bullies at work. Example: Letting yourself be bullied is not a thing. Available here and by RSS on March 6.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenIyeJIiAfnGdKlUXrner@ChacsxirZwZlENmHUNHioCanyon.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 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at X, or share a tweet 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.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.