Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 23, Issue 20;   May 17, 2023: Clouted Thinking

Clouted Thinking


When we say that people have "clout" we mean that they have more organizational power or social influence than most others do. But when people with clout try to use it in realms beyond those in which they've earned it, trouble looms.
Benjamin Franklin portrait by Joseph Siffred Duplessis

Benjamin Franklin portrait by Joseph Siffred Duplessis, ca. 1785. (It is this image that appears on the U.S 100-dollar bill) Benjamin Franklin participated in the Constitutional Convention that led to the creation of the United States of America. His role was that of sage elder, lending weight to the body — what I call "clout" here — that was sorely needed. He made several critical suggestions at key points in the development of the constitution.

Sometimes those who possess clout use it well. Sometimes we are wise to heed them.

Photo of a painting of Benjamin Franklin by Joseph Siffred Duplessis held at the U.S National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution.

From time to time, we become so involved in debating with each other that we can forget that for most issues we debate at work, Reality has the final say. It happens like this. We encounter a situation that has no obvious or immediate resolution. We debate the issue for a time, and finally settle on a path that nobody is really comfortable with. Then we push ahead, hoping that somehow it will all work out.

But Reality — not any debater's skill or stature — ultimately decides every question. Here's an example:

Some of us (the Visionaries) are inclined to believe that we'll easily meet the target date that has been set for us, using only the people and assets we already have in place. Others (the Pragmatists) argue that meeting the target date is impossible with what we have. To meet the target date, we'll need more people (or equipment, or software, or something else). Name-calling sets in; the Pragmatists call the Visionaries "Dreamers;" the Visionaries call the Pragmatists "Pessimists."

We go back and forth on this question, until someone who's highly respected — someone with "clout" whom I'll call Franklin — proposes a Compromise Approach. The Visionaries and Pragmatists agree to hire a few more people and acquire more powerful software. But although these measures were among those the Pragmatists wanted, much of what they wanted is excluded.

In scenarios like this, people don't seem concerned that Reality hasn't had a chance to contribute to the debate. Nobody has suggested a "pilot," and the Pragmatists failed to sway the Visionaries by citing the difficulties previous efforts have had. And so, Reality is set aside until Franklin's Compromise Approach is either successful — or not.

It's white-knuckle time.

Clouted thinking

What The person who has the clout isn't necessarily
engaged in nefarious activity. It's often the
person with clout who is thinking most cloutedly.
has happened in scenarios like the one above might be regarded as analogous to the consequences of a cognitive bias known as the halo effect. [Thorndike 1920] The halo effect is our tendency to allow positive (negative) impressions of one attribute of a person, company, country, brand, product, or any entity, really, to positively (negatively) influence our assessment of other attributes of that same person, company, country, brand, product, or entity.

In the scenario above, both Visionaries and Pragmatists accept Franklin's Compromise Approach. It might be a good solution. But it's also possible that the halo effect has taken over. It's possible that their willingness to adopt Franklin's compromise was influenced, in part, by Franklin's stature — by his clout. Their thinking might have been something like, "Franklin knows his stuff, so maybe his idea will actually work."

And that's the problem. Franklin knows his stuff. He has a record of accomplishment in some specific domains in which he earned his clout. But is that record applicable to the matter at hand? Perhaps. In many cases it is applicable. But too often, the halo effect causes us to accept the suggestions of the Franklins of the world even when the domains in which they earned their clout aren't relevant to the matter at hand.

I call this pattern clouted thinking. The person who has the clout isn't necessarily engaged in nefarious activity. It's often the person with clout who is thinking most cloutedly.

Indicators of clouted thinking

Clouted thinking is one of the harmful effects of clout. Detecting clouted thinking can be difficult. But one aid in avoiding trouble is sensitivity to the kinds of comments people make when they're engaging in clouted thinking. Here are five indicators that the risk of clouted thinking is elevated.

Discarding some evidence while crediting other evidence
Knowing what to attend to and what to set aside is essential for resolving complex problems. Be alert to the arbitrary application of the technique. Inconsistency in what we accept or reject can be driven by a desire to reach a specific outcome.
I prefer my opinion to yours
Preference for one opinion over others is not evidence of the validity of that opinion. Preference for an opinion is not a reason to be guided by that opinion. Demand evidence.
If you can't explain why it's happening, it isn't happening
It's irrational to reject an observation of system behavior as invalid on the basis that no known model of the system can account for that behavior. Instead, when our models cannot account for system behavior, we must accept that our models of the system are incomplete or incorrect. Models can be wrong. Reality is always right.
It can't (must) be true because people with clout say so
Accepting as facts the assertions of people with clout is one way of detaching the debate from Reality. The pronouncements of people with clout then become facts for purposes of the debate. And unlike actual facts, pronouncements can be mistaken or fabricated. Demand Reality-based evidence.
You're wrong, because you're contradicting someone with clout
People with clout are typically correct more often than others, but they do make mistakes, too. And people who lack clout can occasionally report correct observations, or occasionally have good ideas. It's irrational to reject (or accept) a statement on the sole basis of its author's stature. Demand evidence.

Last words

The suggestions above mention the need for evidence repeatedly, but they don't define the term. Evidence is fact. Statements by reliable individuals are sometimes the closest we come to gathering facts. Statements, when taken as fact, can sometime lead us to clouted thinking. Handle statements with care. Go to top Top  Next issue: Ten-Minute Training  Next Issue

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Comprehensive list of all citations from all editions of Point Lookout
[Thorndike 1920]
Edward L. Thorndike. "A Constant Error in Psychological Ratings," Journal of Applied Psychology 4:1 (1920), pp. 25-29. doi:10.1037/h0071663. Available here. Retrieved 28 April 2021. Back

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