Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 15, Issue 44;   November 4, 2015:

Wishful Thinking and Perception: II

by

Continuing our exploration of causes of wishful thinking and what we can do about it, here's Part II of a little catalog of ways our preferences and wishes affect our perceptions.
The U.S. F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter lifts off for its first training sortie March 6, 2012, at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida

The U.S. F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter lifts off for its first training sortie March 6, 2012, at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. The F-35 program is perhaps a classic example of the consequences of sunk cost thinking. According to an article in the National Review, the biggest threat to U.S. military preparedness does not come from any conceivable foe. As the article states, "The biggest threat comes from the F-35 — a plane that is being projected to suck up 1.5 trillion precious defense dollars. For this trillion-dollar-plus investment we get a plane far slower than a 1970s F-14 Tomcat, a plane with less than half the range of a 40-year-old A-6 Intruder, a plane whose sustained-turn performance is that of a 1960s F-4 Phantom, and a plane that had its head handed to it by an F-16 during a recent dogfight competition. The problem is not just hundreds of billions of dollars being wasted on the F-35, it is also about not having that money to spend on programs that would give us a far bigger bang for the buck." Photo by Samuel King Jr., courtesy U.S. Air Force.

When things go awry, we often discover that wishful thinking played a role. As we've seen, it can affect our perceptions, our interpretations of those perceptions, the inferences we draw from those interpretations, and our choices of responses. We continue now exploring how it can affect that first stage, our perceptions.

Sunk cost effect
The sunk cost effect makes us more likely to continue along lines where we already have investments. With respect to perceptions, it causes us to acquire more information about familiar options, as opposed to options about which we know less. Since our preferences (our wishes) often set priorities, sunk costs tend to curtail acquisition of information about options that are inconsistent with our wishes, even when those options have superior potential. Our wished-for options therefore seem superior if for no other reason than that we know more about them.
Have you set research priorities according to what you wish were true? Have you invested in learning more about the familiar, or do you set priorities on the basis of objectively assessed potential?
Sunk time effect
Given the analogy between time and other finite resources, it's surprising that investigations into a "sunk time effect" have begun so recently. But evidence does suggest its existence. [Navarro 2009] Having spent time investigating what we wish were true, we're more likely to continue along those lines, even when other options are more promising.
Have you spent so much time on preferred options that you feel you have no time to examine alternatives? Was there an earlier point when you could have considered alternatives?
Anchoring
Anchoring is the tendency to rely too much on information received first, compared to later arriving information. The first information sets an "anchor." It becomes the standard against which we evaluate all subsequent information. When we gather information in support of our wishes first, as is often done, our wishes can become anchors.
Imagine how you would have evaluated later-arriving information if it had arrived earlier. Would it have had a different effect then? Would it have changed the questions you asked?
Dunning-Kruger effect
The Dunning-Kruger When we set learning priorities based
on our preferred approaches, we bias
our learning in favor of our preferences
and at the expense of possibly
superior alternatives
effect has several consequences. [Kruger 1999] It includes the tendency of people who are less competent to overestimate their own competence, the tendency of the more competent to underestimate their own competence, and everyone's tendency to confuse confidence with competence. The least competent are often the most confident; the least confident are often the most competent. We're less likely to accept advice from cautious experts than from confident ignoramuses.
Is the substance of the advice you receive truly all that matters? Is the manner of the advisor, whether confident or cautious, a factor in your evaluation of that advice? Is the degree of alignment between that advice and what you wanted to hear completely irrelevant?

We'll investigate how wishful thinking affects our interpretation of data next time. First in this series  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Wishful Interpretation: I  Next Issue

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For more about the Dunning-Kruger Effect, see "The Paradox of Confidence," Point Lookout for January 7, 2009; "How to Reject Expert Opinion: II," Point Lookout for January 4, 2012; "Devious Political Tactics: More from the Field Manual," Point Lookout for August 29, 2012; "Overconfidence at Work," Point Lookout for April 15, 2015; "Wishful Significance: II," Point Lookout for December 23, 2015; "Cognitive Biases and Influence: I," Point Lookout for July 6, 2016; "The Paradox of Carefully Chosen Words," Point Lookout for November 16, 2016; and "Risk Acceptance: One Path," Point Lookout for March 3, 2021.

Footnotes

[Navarro 2009]
Anton D. Navarro and Edmund Fantino. "The Sunk-Time Effect: An Exploration," in the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making 22:3 (2009), 252-270. Back
[Kruger 1999]
Justin Kruger and David Dunning. "Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77:6 (1999), 121-1134. Available here. Retrieved 17 December 2008. Back

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