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

Wishful Significance: I

by

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 1]
  • "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

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Footnotes

[Brenner 2015]
Richard Brenner. "Managing Wishful Thinking Risk," Point Lookout blog, October 21, 2015. Available here. Back
[Note 1]
This is an example of the extrinsic incentives bias. Back
[Brenner 2012]
Richard Brenner. "Some Subtleties of ad hominem Attacks," Point Lookout blog, November 14, 2012. Available here. This is an example of an ad hominem attack. Back

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