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Volume 15, Issue 42;   October 21, 2015: Managing Wishful Thinking Risk

Managing Wishful Thinking Risk

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When things go wrong, and we look back at how we got there, we must sometimes admit to wishful thinking. Here's a framework for managing the risk of wishful thinking.
The Satir Interaction Model as simplified by Weinberg

The Interaction Model of Virginia Satir, as simplified by Jerry Weinberg. The schematic suggests, misleadingly, that processing travels a linear path from Intake to Response. What actually happens inside us, expressed in terms of this simple model, is far more complex, with loops and jumps and intermediate results affecting re-processing of earlier results. But for our purposes of understanding wishful thinking, and for many other purposes as well, applying this model can yield an abundance of useful insights.

Wishful thinking is a means of reaching pleasing conclusions, maintaining preferred beliefs, or rejecting unfavorable beliefs. We think wishfully by cherry-picking evidence, bending the rules of rational thought, or creating substitutes for reality. Wishful thinking can be a source of risk in every human endeavor, whether we're rebuilding the U.S. Air Traffic Control system, or deciding whether or not to have a third child, or crossing a street in heavy traffic.

Because we can detect wishful thinking much more easily in others than in ourselves, tools for detecting it are important assets for people who must make decisions of consequence. For thinking about thinking, useful tools must be simple, because we need them while thinking about something else is actually happening. One such simple framework is the "Ingredients of an Interaction," a model of the person-to-person communication process developed by Virginia Satir [1]. For our Wishful Thinking interventions, we'll use an even simpler form of the Satir Interaction Model, due to Jerry Weinberg [2]. And instead of applying it to the case of person-to-person interaction, we'll be applying it to the more general case of person-World interactions.

For our purposes, the model describes the thought process that occurs from the moment we take in data from the World, to the moment when we execute a response to that data. The process has four stages, though we don't necessarily move through these stages in a strictly linear fashion. They are:

Intake
During Intake, Wishful thinking can be
a source of risk in every
human endeavor
we acquire information about the outside World. For example, we might receive a message that an "all hands" meeting will be held this afternoon at 3PM.
Meaning
Here we interpret the data we've acquired, and ascribe meaning to it. In our example, the meaning might be that we must attend an all-hands meeting at 3PM. There really isn't much more to it than that.
Significance
In this stage, we evaluate the significance of the meaning we made of the data. In our example, we might realize that we must reschedule our daily 3PM team meeting. Or we might begin to worry that layoffs are coming. Minds can easily boggle.
Response
Finally, we formulate and execute some kind of action. In our example, we might decide to notify the team that today's 3PM meeting is cancelled, and remind them that tomorrow's meeting will be held as usual. Or we might phone a trusted ally and suggest a meeting over coffee to discuss the layoffs.

That's the simplified form of the Satir Interaction Model. Our wishes, desires, and preferences can enter at any stage, and when they do, they do so in different ways peculiar to the stage involved. In coming weeks, we'll investigate how our wishes influence each stage of the process. Until then, think about which stage might be most vulnerable to wishful thinking for you.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Wishful Thinking and Perception: I  Next Issue

[1]
Virginia Satir, John Banmen, Jane Gerber and Maria Gomori. The Satir Model: Family Therapy and Beyond. Palo Alto, CA: Science & Behavior Books, 1991. See pp. 124-128. Order from Amazon.com
[2]
Gerald M. Weinberg. Quality Software Management Volume 2: First-Order Measurement. New York: Dorset House, 1993. See pp. 2-3. Order from Amazon.com

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