Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Bias Against Innovation

Bias Against Innovation


As discussed in a previous post, as humans, we all have cognitive biases that invade our thought processes and cloud our judgment, which often leads to irrational or illogical thought. These biases can have significant effects on innovation. A world without innovation is a scary thought – innovation drives growth and benefits society in profound ways. But if life without innovation would be arguably catastrophic, why do we so often stall when taking the leap to innovate. Well, you guessed it, cognitive bias might have a little something to do with it.

Just as cognitive bias impacts your decision in line at Starbucks, it also impacts any day-to-day attempts at innovation. For a business and its brand, it is vital to recognize the biases that often materialize when responding to change. Understanding that these biases exist is step number 1 to minimize our actions and reactions to these biases.

While certainly not exhaustive, below is a collection of biases – in no particular order – that may help you get to step number 1 quicker when it comes to tackling innovation setbacks. Some may be familiar or obvious, while others might just surprise you.

Zero-Risk Bias

As humans, we are risk-averse and fear loss more than we appreciate gain. In other words, certainty is king – we have a preference for the complete elimination of risk even when an alternative option may produce a greater reduction in risk overall. People are more willing to pay high costs to completely eliminate risk even if it’s counterproductive. As is obvious, innovation often involves risk, which means the presence of this bias in potential innovative endeavors can impede progress.

Confirmation Bias

This is a tendency to embrace information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions. In other words, when people want a certain idea or concept to be true, they end up believing it is in fact true. Wishful thinking at its finest. The trouble with this bias is that it leads people to pick out data that confirms prejudices and reject or ignore any information that casts doubt on the preconceptions.

Functional Fixedness

This bias causes people to use objects only in the way traditionally used. As designers, researchers, and strategists, we have our own unique way of applying our expertise. Without fighting the functional fixedness bias, it’s hard to imagine different approaches to a problem, especially if prior solutions were met with great success. Same goes for innovation – companies are consistently constrained by functional fixedness which causes people to overlook fresh solutions.  

Hyperbolic Discounting

This refers to a stronger preference people have for more immediate payoffs relative to later, long-term payoffs. In other words, our brains have a tendency to reduce the importance of the future in our decision-making. With respect to innovation, this means we have a hard-wired tendency to make business choices that lead to short-term happiness and long-term disaster.

Information Bias

This bias causes us to search for more information even if it’s not important. It follows the idea that the more information considered when making a decision, the better, even where the additional information is extraneous or irrelevant. The never-ending search for more and more information inevitably slows down innovation.

Negativity Bias

Negative people, experiences, and information have stronger effects on us than positive ones. Because we focus more on the negative, when confronted with new ideas or concepts, our natural reaction is to identify what’s wrong with the idea and why it won’t work. This means new ideas are often shut down immediately in favor of the safer, less exciting and less innovative options.

Conservatism Bias

This bias comes to life when people are more inclined to favor prior evidence over new evidence or information that has emerged. In other words, conservatism bias represents an aversion to change. Where one prefers to do things the way he or she has done them for years, new or emerging data can be discounted – in turn, innovative thought suffers.    

This relatively short list of biases sheds light on the impact of cognitive bias as it relates to innovation. As you read through this list, I imagine you saw glimpses of one or more of these in your own actions or thought processes or in the actions of others. Because bias becomes a challenge for companies and individuals who want to innovate, it is vital to be alert and attuned to the biases that regularly infiltrate our thoughts.


As much as many of us would like to, we simply can't get out of our heads. As a result, I encourage those going to FEI to be on-guard as they are confronted with new ideas and concepts at the conference – before shrugging off a novel idea or suggestion, think about the potential bias that may be creeping into your mindset. 

If you’d like to connect and talk more about cognitive bias and design, please reach out. We will be at the conference all week talking about The Physics of Brand, design, and the stories that inspire us.

Aaron Keller, Kitty Hart, and I write for the FEI event blog, please reach out if you have a story to share.

Research and Strategy Associate, Capsule Design




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