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Volume 15, Issue 45;   November 11, 2015: Wishful Interpretation: I
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Wishful Interpretation: I

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Wishful thinking comes from more than mere imagination. It can enter when we interpret our own observations or what others tell us. Here's Part I of a little catalog of ways our wishes affect how we interpret the world.
Platform supply vessels battle the fire that was consuming remnants of the Deepwater Horizon oilrig in April 2010

Platform supply vessels battle the fire that was consuming remnants of the Deepwater Horizon oilrig in April 2010. This photo was taken by a U.S. Coast Guard MH-65C Dolphin rescue helicopter, which documented the fire while searching for survivors. Although organizational politics and pressure to meet financial objectives certainly influenced decision-makers, optimism bias might well have played a role. Photo courtesy United States Coast Guard. Read the final report on the incident, issued by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, "REPORT REGARDING THE CAUSES OF THE APRIL 20th 2010 MACONDO WELL BLOWOUT."

After we take in information from the world around us, we interpret it. For example, one (exceptionally simple) meaning of a message announcing an "all hands" meeting today at 3 PM might be, "The all hands meeting is at 3 PM." A more complicated interpretation, which also considers the manner of delivery of the announcement, might be, "This is a surprise meeting, on very short notice. Hmmm…"

Interpretation, the second stage of Jerry Weinberg's simplified version of Virginia Satir's Interaction Model of communication [1], is vulnerable to the effects of cognitive biases — systematic deviations from purely objective interpretation. These 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.

Here's Part I of a little catalog of phenomena affecting interpretation in ways that contribute to wishful thinking.

Optimism bias
Among cognitive biases, one that's closely related to wishful thinking is optimism bias. It causes us to judge that, compared to others, we're less likely to experience a given undesirable event. Research suggests, albeit a bit less clearly, that optimism bias also causes us to believe that we're relatively more likely to experience a desirable event [2]. Optimism bias can thus cause us to be more likely to accept (or discover) interpretations that are relatively favorable, and be less likely to accept (or discover) less favorable interpretations.
For important matters, For important matters, proceed
slowly and thoughtfully when
making meaning of information
proceed slowly and thoughtfully when making meaning of information. Establish for yourself a minimum number of alternative interpretations required before you begin to focus on a single one. Because we rarely have trouble finding two interpretations, three or more alternatives seem to be necessary to compel thoughtful consideration. Teams and groups have advantages here, because their numbers help them develop alternatives more easily, especially if they can appoint a subgroup of "designated skeptics."
Framing effects
A framing effect is underway when the style, wording, or manner of presenting information affects how recipients interpret it. In the now-classic example, compare two descriptions of a medical procedure. The positive form: "It has significantly relieved 60% of patients." And the negative form: "It provided no significant relief for 40% of patients." These two descriptions have identical meaning, but patients listening to the positive form are more likely to elect the procedure. The "frame" affects how we interpret our observations. Framing effects are the basis of the "spin" techniques politicians and advertisers so often use.
To control your own wishful interpretations, try reframing observations so as to elicit alternatives. The effort can reveal that your original interpretation might need broadening. Reframing exercises are relatively easier for teams and groups, because they inherently have multiple perspectives. One can even imagine devising a "reframing game."

We'll continue next time with several more phenomena that cause us to systematically interpret what people say or do, or information we receive, to be in alignment with our wishes. First in this series | Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Wishful Interpretation: II  Next Issue

[1]
[2]
Susana Gouveia and Valerie Clarke, "Optimistic bias for negative and positive events," Health Education 101 (5), pp. 228-234, 2001.

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