A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
November 11th, 2014 by William

The Woozle Effect

A Woozle is an imaginary character in the 1926 A. A. Milne book, Winnie-the-Pooh. In chapter three, “In Which Pooh and Piglet Go Hunting and Nearly Catch a Woozle,”
Piglet spots Pooh walking around in a circle in the woods. Piglet asks Pooh what he is doing, and Pooh says that he is hunting and tracking something, although he doesn’t know quite what he is hunting and tracking. He says he’ll have to wait until he finds the something to find out what it is.

Piglet joins him and becomes excited because he thinks that it could be tracks from a Woozle. Woozles are deceitful, weasel-like animals that live in the Hundred Acre Wood. Pooh says that it might be a Woozle, or it might not, and Piglet joins in with the tracking to see if they can find out for sure. And after a little while Pooh stops walking, and says that it’s very funny, but there are now two sets of paw-prints, which mean there might be two Woozles.

They meet up with Christopher Robin who asks Pooh what he was doing, as has watched Pooh walk round the trees first by himself, and then with Piglet. Christopher Robin then points out to them that they have been following their own tracks in circles around a tree. Pooh sits down and thinks about this for a little while, and then he tries putting his paw into one of the tracks which makes him realize that he and Piglet have been following their own tracks around the tree, and there were never any Woozles.

In this story Piglet and Pooh are the victims of what’s called “The Woozle Effect.”

The Woozle Effect, also known as “evidence by citation”, is a term coined in 1979 by criminologist Beverley Houghton to describe the process whereby urban legends become established fact. According to Houghton, evidence by citation occurs when frequent citation of beliefs that lack evidence misleads individuals, groups and the public into thinking or believing there is, in fact, evidence. This is just like how Pooh and Piglet believed there was a real animal called a Woozle.

In 1998, Richard J. Gelles and Murray A. Straus introduced the term into the social science arena to describe a pattern of bias which is identified as leading to multiple errors in perception. In social science vernacular, The Woozle Effect is a type of cognitive bias. A cognitive bias is the scientific term defining human behavior in relation to habitual ways of thinking. Very broadly speaking, when you have an opinion, you tend to only notice information that confirms that opinion, and ignore information that contradicts it. Completely explains why Democrats and Republicans can’t seem to agree on anything. There are many different types of cognitive biases which affect the way we make decisions and behave, affect our habits and thought patterns, and thus affect our social behavior. The Woozle Effect explains why organizations can suffer groupthink and succumb to management fads. I’ve talked about the proliferation and blind allegiance to management fads in previous posts.

The Woozle Effect also accounts for how many organizations problem solve (or more appropriately place blame). To management woozles are the cause of every problem. When chasing down their imaginary woozles, most management teams will keep looking in the same place, over and over, and keep seeing the same foot prints they’ve seen in the past. They then rationalize that these are the footprints of the woozle (people, or a person), who caused the problem and thus blame them. Fact is most often management doesn’t recognize the footprints as being their own–just as Pooh and Piglet didn’t recognize their own footprints. And the footprints being their own reflects the fact that most often its management, themselves, that cause the problems. You see it’s not often that management will put their own paw into one of the tracks they’ve created and realize that they have been following their own tracks around the tree, and there were never really any Woozles. The Woozle Effect is why many workplace problems keep reoccurring and never ever really get solved.

So how do you know if your organization falls prey to The Woozle Effect? Do you ever hear management, or anyone in the organization, make comments like, “Everyone knows that,” or “It is clear that,” or “It is obvious that.” These kind of unchallenged statements encourage the woozle effect; if we hear something enough times we assume that it is true. This is when alarm bells should sound because what follows is probably a Woozle.

When do you know that a Woozle has happened? A Woozle has occurred when suddenly language turns from qualified (“it may,” “it might,” or “it could”) to a statement of fact like “it is.” Think about the day-to-day conversations you hear in your own workplace and see if you can identify The Woozle Effect in action. I’ll bet its happening more often than you ever thought possible.


One Response to “The Woozle Effect”
  1. Isaac Tickley Quill says

    You missed mentioning that when a woozle is caught and cornered, many will attempt to defend the woozle and explain it away by use of a secondary Woozle.

    “As one works towards the resolution of a primary Woozle the probability of another person defending the primary Woozle by use of a secondary Woozle approaches 1, resulting in an “Idiot’s Woozle”

    The”Houghton Woozle Fallacy” is named after “Beverly Houghton” who coined the term “Woozle Effect“, November 1979, whilst presenting a paper “”Review of research on women abuse.”” at the annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology, Philadelphia. She showed how a sample of 100 families sought for research, with the research being misused by two Journalists (Langley and levy) to fabricate claims that 28 Million American Housewives were subject to beatings by Husbands. see Wife beating: the silent crisis, Roger Langley, Richard C. Levy Dutton, 1977 Page 3.

    The Woozle was accepted whole and swallowed, leading to claims that there was wilful and culpable ignorance on the part of The American Government.

    There have been decades of follow on issues with Woozles plaguing data and research in Domestic Violence – see Dutton Dutton (2006), Rethinking Domestic Violence, page 23:

    “Woozles are usually not simply a matter of authentic misreporting. They also reveal a desire to read into the data an a priori position that is really not there, what Bacon calls “idols of the theatre” … All the data reporting mistakes I have found in the literature, without exception, were made in the direction of supporting feminist preconceptions.”.

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