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:
- When We Need a Little Help
- Sometimes we get in over our heads — too much work, work we don't understand, or even complex
politics. We can ask for help, but we often forget that we can. Even when we remember, we sometimes
hold back. Why is asking for help, or remembering that we can ask, so difficult? How can we make it easier?
- 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.
- Assumptions and the Johari Window: II
- The roots of both creative and destructive conflict can often be traced to the differing assumptions
of the parties to the conflict. Here's Part II of an essay on surfacing these differences using a tool
called the Johari window.
- Virtual Teams Need Generous Travel Budgets
- Although virtual team members who happen to be co-located do meet from time to time, meetings of people
who reside at different sites are often severely restricted by tight or non-existent travel budgets.
Such restrictions, intended to save money, can contribute to expensive delays and errors.
- Start Anywhere
- Group problem-solving sessions sometimes focus on where to begin, even when what we know about the problem
is insufficient for making such decisions. In some cases, preliminary exploration of almost any aspect
of the problem can be more helpful than debating what to explore.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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- And on July 15: Disjoint Concept Vocabularies
- In disputes or in problem solving sessions, when we can't seem to come to agreement, we often attribute the difficulty to miscommunication, histories of disagreements, hidden agendas, or "personality clashes." Sometimes the cause is much simpler. Sometimes the concept vocabularies of the parties don't overlap. Available here and by RSS on July 15.
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