Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 15, Issue 51;   December 23, 2015: Wishful Significance: II

Wishful Significance: II


When we're beset by seemingly unresolvable problems, we sometimes conclude that "wishful thinking" was the cause. Wishful thinking can result from errors in assessing the significance of our observations. Here's a second group of causes of erroneous assessment of significance.
Louis Pasteur in 1885

Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) at work in his laboratory. Painting by Albert Edelfelt (1854-1905), oil on canvas. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

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 evidence
effect 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.

Deducing implications of observations is difficult. Demand evidence. Be logical. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Call in the Right Expert  Next Issue

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Read Kruger and Dunning's original paper, courtesy the American Psychological Association.

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.


[Nuland 1979]
Sherwin B. Nuland. "The Enigma of Semmelweis — an Interpretation," Journal of The History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, vol. 34 (3), pp. 255-272, 1979. Back

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