Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 15, Issue 45;   November 11, 2015: Wishful Interpretation: I

Wishful Interpretation: I

by

Last updated: August 8, 2018

Wishful thinking comes from more than mere imagination. It can enter when we interpret our own observations or what others tell us. Here's Part I of a little catalog of ways our wishes affect how we interpret the world.
Platform supply vessels battle the fire that was consuming remnants of the Deepwater Horizon oilrig in April 2010

Platform supply vessels battle the fire that was consuming remnants of the Deepwater Horizon oilrig in April 2010. This photo was taken by a U.S. Coast Guard MH-65C Dolphin rescue helicopter, which documented the fire while searching for survivors. Although organizational politics and pressure to meet financial objectives certainly influenced decision-makers, optimism bias might well have played a role. Photo courtesy U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Read the final report on the incident, issued by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, "REPORT REGARDING THE CAUSES OF THE APRIL 20th 2010 MACONDO WELL BLOWOUT."

After we take in information from the world around us, we interpret it. For example, one (exceptionally simple) meaning of a message announcing an "all hands" meeting today at 3 PM might be, "The all hands meeting is at 3 PM." A more complicated interpretation, which also considers the manner of delivery of the announcement, might be, "This is a surprise meeting, on very short notice. Hmmm…"

Interpretation, the second stage of Jerry Weinberg's simplified version of Virginia Satir's Interaction Model of communication [Brenner 2015], is vulnerable to the effects of cognitive biases — systematic deviations from purely objective interpretation. These biases can be helpful, because they can lead us to important insights faster than objective, rational deduction can. And they can also mislead us, with serious and regrettable consequences.

Here's Part I of a little catalog of phenomena affecting interpretation in ways that contribute to wishful thinking.

Optimism bias
Among cognitive biases, one that's closely related to wishful thinking is optimism bias. It causes us to judge that, compared to others, we're less likely to experience a given undesirable event. Research suggests, albeit a bit less clearly, that optimism bias also causes us to believe that we're relatively more likely to experience a desirable event [Gouveia 2001]. Optimism bias can thus cause us to be more likely to accept (or discover) interpretations that are relatively favorable, and be less likely to accept (or discover) less favorable interpretations.
For important matters, For important matters, proceed
slowly and thoughtfully when
making meaning of information
proceed slowly and thoughtfully when making meaning of information. Establish for yourself a minimum number of alternative interpretations required before you begin to focus on a single one. Because we rarely have trouble finding two interpretations, three or more alternatives seem to be necessary to compel thoughtful consideration. Teams and groups have advantages here, because their numbers help them develop alternatives more easily, especially if they can appoint a subgroup of "designated skeptics."
Framing effects
A framing effect is underway when the style, wording, or manner of presenting information affects how recipients interpret it. In the now-classic example, compare two descriptions of a medical procedure. The positive form: "It has significantly relieved 60% of patients." And the negative form: "It provided no significant relief for 40% of patients." These two descriptions have identical meaning, but patients listening to the positive form are more likely to elect the procedure. The "frame" affects how we interpret our observations. Framing effects are the basis of the "spin" techniques politicians and advertisers so often use.
To control your own wishful interpretations, try reframing observations so as to elicit alternatives. The effort can reveal that your original interpretation might need broadening. Reframing exercises are relatively easier for teams and groups, because they inherently have multiple perspectives. One can even imagine devising a "reframing game."

We'll continue next time with several more phenomena that cause us to systematically interpret what people say or do, or information we receive, to be in alignment with our wishes. First in this series | Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Wishful Interpretation: 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!

Footnotes

[Brenner 2015]
[Gouveia 2001]
Susana Gouveia and Valerie Clarke, "Optimistic bias for negative and positive events," Health Education 101 (5), pp. 228-234, 2001. Back

Your comments are welcome

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

About Point Lookout

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.

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:

Moving the goal postsAre You Changing Tactics or Moving the Goal Posts?
When we make a mid-course correction in a project, we're usually responding to a newly uncovered difficulty that requires a change in tactics. Sometimes, we can't resist the temptation to change the goals of the project at the same time. And that can be a big mistake.
A traffic sign warning of trouble aheadNine Positive Indicators of Negative Progress
Project status reports rarely acknowledge negative progress until after it becomes undeniable. But projects do sometimes move backwards, outside of our awareness. What are the warning signs that negative progress might be underway?
The Shining Flycatcher, native of Northern Australia and Southwest Pacific islandsBacktracking in Incremental Problem Solving
Incremental problem solving is fashionable these days. Whether called evolutionary, incremental, or iterative, the approach entails unique risks. Managing those risks sometimes requires counterintuitive action.
Lt. Gen. Donald Kutyna, Ret., when he was Commander of the U.S. Space CommandMore Obstacles to Finding the Reasons Why
Retrospectives — also known as lessons learned exercises or after-action reviews — sometimes miss important insights. Here are some additions to our growing catalog of obstacles to learning.
John Frank Stevens, who conceived the design and method of construction of the Panama CanalPower Distance and Risk
Managing or responding to project risks is much easier when team culture encourages people to report problems and to question any plans they have reason to doubt. Here are five examples that show how such encouragement helps to manage risk.

See also Project Management and Critical Thinking at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

The Bay of Pigs, CubaComing September 30: Seven More Planning Pitfalls: II
Planning teams, like all teams, are susceptible to several patterns of interaction that can lead to counter-productive results. Three of these most relevant to planners are False Consensus, Groupthink, and Shared Information Bias. Available here and by RSS on September 30.
Assembling an IKEA chairAnd on October 7: Seven More Planning Pitfalls: III
Planning teams, like all teams, are vulnerable to several patterns of interaction that can lead to counter-productive results. Two of these relevant to planners are a cognitive bias called the IKEA Effect, and a systemic bias against realistic estimates of cost and schedule. Available here and by RSS on October 7.

Coaching services

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

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power

Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople 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.

Bullet Points: Mastery or Madness?

DecisBullet Point Madnession-makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision-makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, 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.