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? rbrenuQKLUMsVubCpqOpqner@ChacCCvpZbzKGsgliMGNoCanyon.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:

Shackleton, Scott and Wilson, of the British Antarctic Expedition 1902The Injured Teammate: II
You're a team lead, and one of the team members is suddenly very ill or has been severely injured. How do you handle it? Here are some suggestions for breaking the news to the team.
In-flight portrait of the Apollo 13 Environmental Control SystemProject Improvisation Fundamentals
Project plans are useful — to a point. Every plan I've ever seen eventually has problems when it contacts reality. At that point, we replan or improvise. But improvisation is an art form. Here's Part I of a set of tips for mastering project improvisation.
The Great Wall of China near MutianyuScope Creep and Confirmation Bias
As we've seen, some cognitive biases can contribute to the incidence of scope creep in projects and other efforts. Confirmation bias, which causes us to prefer evidence that bolsters our preconceptions, is one of these.
The Perito Moreno Glacier in ArgentinaUnresponsive Suppliers: II
When a project depends on external suppliers for some tasks and materials, supplier performance can affect our ability to meet deadlines. How can communication help us get what we need from unresponsive suppliers?
Not a gorilla suit, the real thingMissing the Obvious: I
At times, when the unexpected occurs, we recognize with hindsight that the unexpected could have been expected. How do we miss the obvious? What's happening when we do?

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A meeting held in a long conference room.Coming July 8: Multi-Expert Consensus
Some working groups consist of experts from many fields. When they must reach a decision by consensus, members have several options. Defining those options in advance can help the group reach a decision with all its relationships intact. Available here and by RSS on July 8.
A dictionaryAnd on July 15: Disjoint Concept Vocabularies
In disputes or in problem solving sessions, when we can't seem to come to agreement, we often attribute the difficulty to miscommunication, histories of disagreements, hidden agendas, or "personality clashes." Sometimes the cause is much simpler. Sometimes the concept vocabularies of the parties don't overlap. Available here and by RSS on July 15.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenuQKLUMsVubCpqOpqner@ChacCCvpZbzKGsgliMGNoCanyon.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.