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 . 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." 
- "He can't be trusted, so don't worry about what he says."  .
- 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:
- How to Reject Expert Opinion: II
- When groups of decision-makers confront complex problems, and they receive opinions from recognized
experts, those opinions sometimes conflict with the group's own preferences. What tactics do groups
use to reject the opinions of people with relevant expertise?
- Rationalizing 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.
- When Fixing It Doesn't Fix It: I
- When complex systems misbehave, a common urge is to find any way at all to end the misbehavior. Succumbing
to that urge can be a big mistake. Here's why we succumb.
- Problem Displacement by Intention
- When solving problems creates new problems, or creates problems elsewhere, we say that problem displacement
has occurred. Sometimes it's intentional.
- Strategic Waiting
- Time can be a tool. Letting time pass can be a strategy for resolving problems or getting out of tight
places. Waiting is an often-overlooked strategic option.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming June 27: Interrupting Others in Meetings Safely: I
- In meetings we sometimes feel the need to interrupt others to offer a view or information, or to suggest adjusting the process. But such interruptions carry risk of offense. How can we interrupt others safely? Available here and by RSS on June 27.
- And on July 4: Interrupting Others in Meetings Safely: II
- When we feel the need to interrupt someone who's speaking in a meeting, to offer a view or information, we would do well to consider (and mitigate) the risk of giving offense. Here are some techniques for interrupting the speaker in situations not addressed by the meeting's formal process. Available here and by RSS on July 4.
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- The Race to the South Pole: The Power of Agile Development
- 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 drama, why this happened is interesting enough. Lessons abound. Among the more important
lessons are those that demonstrate the power of the agile approach to project management and product
development. Read more about this program. Here's
a date for this program:
- Ohio National Insurance, 1 Financial Way, Blue Ash, OH: July
Monthly Meeting, Cincinnati
chapter of the International Institute of Business Analysis. Register now.
- Ohio National Insurance, 1 Financial Way, Blue Ash, OH: July 17, Monthly Meeting, Cincinnati chapter of the International Institute of Business Analysis. Register now.
- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people 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.