We began last time to explore how we can err when assessing the significance of observations. We saw that the significance of an observation is the set of implications and consequences that follow from it, where the key word is follow. We like to believe that we deduce the implications and consequences from evidence and clear reasoning, but we don't always work that way, especially under pressure. Here are three phenomena that can distort assessments of significance.
- Dunning-Kruger effect
- The Dunning-Kruger effect leads to confusion between confidence and competence, and between cautious prudence and incompetence, both of which distort estimations of competence. We then assess the significance of information based on the manner of delivery, rather than the credibility of the messenger. If the messenger is non-sentient, we assess significance based on immediacy, suddenness, or directness — the non-sentient analogs of "confidence."
- For example, a report written in a confident style, well-documented, and presenting conclusions without acknowledging uncertainties, can be more influential than an equally well-drafted report presenting the same conclusions but also clearly explaining the uncertainties.
- Optimism bias
- This bias is the tendency to underestimate the likelihood of unwelcome events befalling us personally, compared to the likelihood of similar events befalling others. It can cause errors in estimating risk probabilities. See "Wishful Interpretation: I," Point Lookout for November 11, 2015.
- Under the influence of this bias people might express sentiments such as:
- No need for concern, that will never happen
- No need for concern, that will never happen twice in a row
- Yes, but they won't realize it until it's too late to respond
- Semmelweis effect
- The Semmelweis Wishful thinking can result from
errors in assessing the significance
of our observations, because we
don't always assess significance
logically from objective evidenceeffect is the tendency to reject new approaches or theories not on the basis of disconfirming evidence, but because they contradict established practice and belief. It's named for a Hungarian physician, Ignac Semmelweis (1818-1865), who proposed in 1847 that high maternal mortality rates in a Vienna maternity ward were due to physicians treating mothers directly after performing autopsies without washing their hands. This practice seems evidently abhorrent now, but the germ theory of disease wasn't firmly established until Pasteur's work 15 years later. As the story goes, Semmelweis met fierce resistance because of the essence of his theory, but that interpretation of the cause of the resistance has been discredited [Nuland 1979]. Still, the name has stuck. The Semmelweis effect can cause us to resist change even in the presence of mounting evidence of the need for it.
- Under the influence of the Semmelweis effect, people might express sentiments such as:
- It didn't work that one time, but let's try again. I'm sure it will work out.
- If you're right, then we just wasted two months. You must be wrong.
- We don't have the resources for that. To get this job done, we agreed we must take a few shortcuts.
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For more about the Dunning-Kruger Effect, see "The Paradox of Confidence," Point Lookout for January 7, 2009; "How to Reject Expert Opinion: II," Point Lookout for January 4, 2012; "Devious Political Tactics: More from the Field Manual," Point Lookout for August 29, 2012; "Overconfidence at Work," Point Lookout for April 15, 2015; "Wishful Thinking and Perception: II," Point Lookout for November 4, 2015; "Cognitive Biases and Influence: I," Point Lookout for July 6, 2016; and "The Paradox of Carefully Chosen Words," Point Lookout for November 16, 2016.
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More articles on Problem Solving and Creativity:
- Make Space for Serendipity
- Serendipity in project management is rare, in part, because we're under too much pressure to see it.
If we can reduce the pressure, wonderful things happen.
- Dealing with Deadlock
- At times it seems that nothing works. Whenever we try to get moving, we encounter obstacles. If we try
to go around them, we find more obstacles. How do we get stuck? And how can we get unstuck?
- Assumptions and the Johari Window: I
- The roots of both creative and destructive conflict can often be traced to differing assumptions of
the parties to the conflict. Working out these differences is a lot easier when we know what everyone's
- Wishful Thinking and Perception: II
- Continuing our exploration of causes of wishful thinking and what we can do about it, here's Part II
of a little catalog of ways our preferences and wishes affect our perceptions.
- Tackling Hard Problems: I
- Hard problems need not be big problems. Even when they're small, they can halt progress on any project.
Here's Part I of an approach to working on hard problems by breaking them down into smaller steps.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming May 15: Entry Intimidation
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- And on May 22: Newtonian Blind Alleys: I
- When we decide how to allocate organizational resources, we make assumptions about how the world works. Often outside our awareness, the thinking of Sir Isaac Newton influences our assumptions. And sometimes they lead us into blind alleys. Universality is one example. Available here and by RSS on May 22.
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- 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.