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Why Can’t We See What’s Really There?

by Creties Jenkins, Partner



Quickly say the words in these three triangles.

If you didn’t pronounce the repeated words, you’re not alone. Nearly everyone fails to do so. But why? Our familiarity with these phrases causes us to predict the fourth word from the first three and ignore what’s in-between. It demonstrates that events consistent with our expectations are processed easily while those that contradict them are ignored or distorted.

Our expectations have many diverse sources, including past experience, professional training, cultural norms and organizational frameworks. These predispose us to pay particular attention to certain kinds of information and to organize and interpret it in certain ways. We are also influenced by the context in which information arises. Hearing footsteps behind you in the office hallway is very different from hearing them behind you in a dark alley!

These patterns of perception tell us subconsciously what to look for and how to interpret it. Without these patterns, it would be impossible to process the volume and complexity of data we receive every day. But we need to be aware of the downsides associated with these patterns:

  1. Your view will be quick to form but resistant to change. Once you form an expectation for your project, this conditions your future perceptions.
  2. New information will simply be assimilated into your existing view. Gradual, evolutionary change associated with new data often goes unnoticed, which is why a fresh set of eyes can reveal insights overlooked by someone working on the same project for many years.
  3. Initial exposure to ambiguous information interferes with accurate perception. The greater the initial ambiguity, and/or the longer you’re exposed to it, the clearer the succeeding information must be before you’re willing to make or change an interpretation.
  4. We tend to perceive what we expect to perceive. It takes more unambiguous information to recognize an unexpected outcome than an expected one.
  5. Organizational pressures resist changing your view. Management values consistent interpretations, particularly those that promise added value to investors!

Fortunately, there are some techniques that can help us overcome these downsides. We need to list our assumptions and chains of inference. We have to specify sources of uncertainty and quantify risk. Key problems should be examined periodically from the ground-up. Alternative points of view should be encouraged and expounded.

These techniques, as well as others, are discussed and practiced in our Mitigating Bias, Blindness and Illusion in E&P Decision Making course. Please consider joining us for a virtual or in-person offering.

Reference excerpted for this blog: Heuer, Richard J., Jr., 1999, Psychology of Intelligence Analysis, Center for the Study of Intelligence.

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