Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 15, Issue 50;   December 16, 2015: Wishful Significance: I

Wishful Significance: I

by

Last updated: August 8, 2018

When things don't work out, and we investigate why, we sometimes attribute our misfortune to "wishful thinking." In this part of our exploration of wishful thinking we examine how we arrive at mistaken assessments of the significance of what we see, hear, or learn.
Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler

Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler, who coined the term backfire effect. We've already seen how the backfire effect can contribute to historical debates at work (see "Historical Debates at Work," Point Lookout for March 11, 2015). The contributions of the effect to wishful thinking can be just as powerful. Although the examples in this article illustrate the impact of the backfire effect acting alone, its impact when combined with other phenomena can be even more troublesome. For example, consider illusory superiority. When someone asserts that, "Those results might actually apply to us, because we might not be superior to others," people might feel that their assessments of their own self-worth are under assault. The backfire effect might then become most prominent. Synergistic effects between and among the cognitive biases described in this Part I, and next in Part II, can be more important than the effects of any one of these cognitive biases acting alone.

Nyhan's and Reifler's Twitter handles are, respectively, @BrendanNyhan and @JasonReifler. Read their paper, "When Corrections Fail: The Persistence of Political Misperceptions" in Political Behavior 32 (2): 303-330.

After we interpret the information we take in from the world around us, we assess its significance. For example, when I hear that the purpose of the all hands meeting is to announce layoffs, I might think, "Maybe so, but my boss would never do that to my group." To believe that is to regard the layoff rumors as having little potential significance for me personally.

Assessing significance is the third stage of Jerry Weinberg's simplified version of Virginia Satir's Interaction Model of communication [Brenner 2015]. These assessments are vulnerable to bias — systematic deviations from purely objective assessments. Cognitive 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, as they often do when wishful thinking is involved.

Here is Part I of a little catalog of examples of cognitive biases that affect attribution of significance in ways that contribute to wishful thinking.

Backfire effect
The backfire effect is a form of attitude polarization that arises when adherents of one particular viewpoint encounter evidence to the contrary. A response to disconfirming evidence that results in strengthened adherence to the original viewpoint, based on belief and without any substantial effort to refute the disconfirming evidence, constitutes the backfire effect. The effect excludes responses that entail energetic engagement with disconfirming evidence leading to logical, evidence-based refutation of that disconfirming evidence.
Under the influence of this bias, people might express sentiments such as:
  • "She's bluffing."
  • "Yeah, well we can find just as many experts who will say otherwise."
  • "I don't believe them because they're always saying what they think will advance their own interests." [Note]
  • "He can't be trusted, so don't worry about what he says." [Brenner 2012] .
Illusory superiority
This bias can Usually, when pondering a particular
cognitive bias, we think about its
effects when it acts alone. But
synergistic effects of multiple
biases can be far more important.
lead us to believe that our own talents, character, abilities, and other attributes are superior to those of others. Although most research relating to this cognitive bias applies to individuals, my own experience suggests that groups are susceptible too. Groups subject to this bias tend to overestimate their ability to deal with risks, or to take on assignments that are beyond their abilities or exceed their capacity.
Under the influence of this bias, people might express sentiments such as:
  • "Even if that happens, we can deal with it."
  • "Those results don't apply to us."
  • "Yes, it happened to them, but it can't happen here."
  • "Just because they failed, doesn't mean we'll fail. In fact, that's what creates the opportunity for us."

We'll continue next time with three more examples of cognitive biases that can lead to wishful thinking by affecting how we assess the significance of information.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Wishful Significance: 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]
See my article, "Managing Wishful Thinking Risk," Point Lookout for October 21, 2015. Back
[Note]
This is an example of the extrinsic incentives bias Back
[Brenner 2012]
This is an example of an ad hominem attack. See "Some Subtleties of ad hominem Attacks," Point Lookout for November 14, 2012 Back

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenwOpzQFEDYPFACYXxner@ChacvoSgYHeKnFeEhAamoCanyon.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 Problem Solving and Creativity:

GEN Eric Shinseki and CWO Nicholas PunimataThe Perils of Piecemeal Analysis: Group Dynamics
When a team relies on group discussion alone to evaluate proposals for the latest show-stopping near-disaster, it exposes itself to the risk that perfectly sound proposals might be inappropriately rejected. The source of some of this risk is the nature of group discussion.
Wilson's Bird-of-paradiseNew Ideas: Judging
When groups work together to solve problems, they eventually evaluate the ideas they generate. They sometimes reject perfectly good ideas, while accepting some really boneheaded ones. How can we judge new ideas more effectively?
A portrait of Matthew Lyon, printer, farmer, soldier, politicianHow to Foresee the Foreseeable: Recognize Haste
When trouble arises after we commit to a course of action, we sometimes feel that the trouble was foreseeable. One technique for foreseeing the foreseeable depends on recognizing haste in the decision-making process.
XP-80 prototype Lulu-Belle on the groundRationalizing Creativity at Work: II
Creative thinking at work can be nurtured or encouraged, but not forced or compelled. Leaders who try to compel creativity because of very real financial and schedule pressures rarely get the results they seek. Here are examples of tactics people use in mostly-futile attempts to compel creativity.
An engineer attending a meeting with 14 other engineersOn Assigning Responsibility for Creating Trouble
When we assign responsibility for troubles that bedevil us, we often make mistakes. We can be misled by language, stereotypes, and the assumptions we make about others.

See also Problem Solving and Creativity, Critical Thinking at Work and Cognitive Biases at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Two men whispering at a village festivalComing January 23: Judging Others
Being "judgmental" is a stance most people recognize as transgressing beyond widely accepted social norms. But what's the harm in judging others? And why do so many people do it so often? Available here and by RSS on January 23.
Bottom: Aerial view of the Forth Bridge, Edinburgh, Scotland. Top: Inside the Forth Rail Bridge, from a ScotRail 158 on August 22, 1999.And on January 30: Conway's Law and Technical Debt
Conway's Law is an observation that the structures of systems we design tend to replicate our communication patterns. This tendency might also contribute to their tendency to accumulate what we now call technical debt. Available here and by RSS on January 30.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenwVeywrkmYQypUnpcner@ChacVlNtbNwGdXzwyAJwoCanyon.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. Here's a date for this program:

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. Here's a date for 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 Follow me at Google+ or share a post 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.