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."
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More articles on Problem Solving and Creativity:
- Finger Puzzles and "Common Sense"
- Working on complex projects, we often face a choice between "just do it" and "wait, let's
think this through first." Choosing to just do it can seem to be the shortest path to the goal,
but it rarely is. It's an example of a Finger Puzzle.
- Knowing Where You're Going
- Groups that can't even agree on what to do can often find themselves debating about how
to do it. Here are some simple things to remember to help you focus on defining the goal.
- Ten Tactics for Tough Times: I
- When you find yourself in a tough spot politically, what can you do? Most of us obsess about the situation
for a while, and then if we still have time to act, we do what seems best. Here's Part I of a set of
approaches that can organize your thinking and shorten the obsessing.
- Annoyance to Asset
- Unsolicited contributions to the work of one element of a large organization, by people from another,
are often annoying to the recipients. Sometimes the contributors then feel rebuffed, insulted, or frustrated.
Toxic conflict can follow. We probably can't halt the flow of contributions, but we can convert it from
a liability to a valuable asset.
- Decisions: How Looping Back Helps
- Group decision-making often proceeds through a series of steps including forming a list of options,
researching them, ranking them, reducing them, and finally selecting one. Often, this linear approach
yields disappointing results. Why?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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- And on July 31: More Things I've Learned Along the Way: IV
- When I have an important insight, or when I'm taught a lesson, I write it down. Here's Part IV from my personal collection. Available here and by RSS on July 31.
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- The Race to the South Pole: Lessons in Leadership
- On 14 December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached
the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the
race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical
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- Baldwin-Wallace University, 275 Eastland Road, Berea, Ohio 44017: November 7, Kerzner Lecture Series/International Project Management Day, sponsored by Baldwin Wallace University and the Northeast Ohio Chapter of the Project Management Institute. Register now.
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