Your Brain Is Getting In the Way

Numerous decisions are made every day all of which are rational—or so we think. Every time we make a decision, there are cognitive biases at play that may be preventing us from acting in our own best interest.

Cognitive biases operate below our awareness and influence our behaviors. Because our brain craves cognitive ease, we form biases to help us think and act quickly and to navigate complex decisions. Biases form overtime based on our experiences and influencers around us. Some biases are good, while others you may want to avoid—if you had freedom of choice to do so.

Are you a technology innovator? Marketing Innovator? How do biases influence our innovativeness? Let’s take a step back and view innovativeness from the mind of a child. How many of you have seen a child create a fort using blankets, tables or chairs? The child’s mind is fueled with imagination, uncorrupted by experiences. Their mind is free to create using objects that are completely disassociated for that particular relative use. They have an imagination which in the professional vernacular we could term an innate capability for open innovation—an innovative spirit where their mind is busy making connections to build solutions using irrelevant objects from various unconnected applications. Blanket + Chair = Fort.

As an adult, our mind gets coerced by biases due to our own life experiences and environment. The great Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow is a must read to fully appreciate the impact biases have on everyday decision making. Everyone experiences different biases. Here are a few examples, in no particular order that may be impacting you.


Functional Fixedness
The tendency to use an object only in the way it is traditionally used. (Karl Duncker, 1945)

Some of the greatest inventions utilize pieces repurposed for something other than its original role. Take a look at patents and you’ll see that a large percentage of them are based upon repurposing one technology for another application.

Being able to see through this bias can be a huge enabler for innovation. Being limited by it will seriously inhibit your innovative thinking.

Tip: See through it by thinking in terms of functions rather than forms. Think about all of the attributes of a hammer, rather than just that it transfers energy through impact to a nail.


Peak End Rule Effect
The tendency in which people judge an experience largely based on how they felt at its peak, i.e., its most intense point, and at its end, rather than based on the total experience. (Kahneman and Fredrickson, 1993)

A medical procedure may be remembered by initial pain and the end result versus all the steps in between. While it is worth thinking about the experience with our innovations from peak end perspective (start and finish) one shouldn’t overlook the entire experience at play.

Tip: Map out all the steps associated with the experience. There may be greater value to your innovation if you can eliminate unwanted steps to get from point A to point B.


Confirmation Bias
The tendency to search for, or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions. (Peter Wason, 1960)

Many times people hold strong to their own assumptions or data they generate in the lab even when there is evidence from talking to end users that may disprove those assumptions. We are quick to discount what we heard versus what we want to hear.

Listening to yourself rather than the consumer can result in the wrong product that solves the wrong problems.

Tip: Remember what you think is probably irrelevant. Ask the right un-biased questions of others instead.


Hyperbolic Discounting
The tendency for people to have a stronger preference for more immediate payoffs relative to later payoffs, where the tendency increases the closer to the present both payoffs are. (Frederick, Loewenstein, and O’Donoghue, 2002)

When it comes to innovation, companies tend to put disproportionately more money against the quick here and now payoffs versus investing in more long term, disruptive type innovations.

Fall prey to this bias and you’ll spend 95% of your R&D monies on incremental innovation. As the old saying goes, “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”.

Tip: Resist the tendency to over value slight market differentiation tomorrow. Instead let tomorrow be someone else’s concern and think objectively about the longer-term opportunities in the absence of a tomorrow.

Excellent Performance

Status Quo Bias
The tendency to stay with initial choices and resist revisiting the decision making process even in the face of powerful reasons to do so. (Samuelson and Zeckhauser, 1988)

This is why brainstorms often fail. While companies may find it easy to generate lots of ideas they struggle to put the more creative ideas into practice—in other words, to innovate. The manager faced with a choice of several ideas ranging from incremental improvement to significant change is more likely to choose incremental improvement.

Tip: Ask yourself “Am I just playing it safe and choosing the option I always choose?” Be like George Costanza—try doing the opposite once in a while and shake-up your world.


Availability Bias
The tendency for people to use a mental shortcut that relies on immediate examples that come to a given person’s mind when evaluating a specific topic, concept, method or decision. (Tversky and Kahneman, 1974)

This has a great impact on advertising. There is a lot of value of creating advertising where our innovation is associated with vivid emotional events (ideally positive).

Tip: It can be better to try and fail than never to have tried. And even the best innovators fail a lot more often than they succeed. The key is to try, and if you fail then do it quickly!

Again these are just a few examples which you find yourself nodding your head in agreement with. Nonetheless, for innovation there is a tendency to make relative versus absolute decisions and a disproportionate liking for certainty over uncertainty. There is greater value around what we might lose versus what we might gain.

Diane Prickel