Beware of Cognitive Biases

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When it comes to innovation, we often think that the challenge is coming up with ideas. Greg Satell, in an article on Cognitive Biases, notes that what really kills innovation is “how to want to see problems and then protect our ideas by ignoring or explaining away facts that don’t fit the pattern.” He notes three such biases. See if any ring true for you.

1. Availability Bias

Coca Cola conducted extensive market testing to determine the viability of New Coke and when they concluded it would be a hit, they introduced it to the public – only to have I rejected. Why? The emotional ties that people had to the old formula were stronger than the new ones to the preferred tastes.

How did this expensive and embarrassing error occur? Psychologists call it the availability bias. We tend to base our judgments on the information that is most easily available, such as market testing taste, and neglect other factors that are harder to see, such as the emotional ties.

In Farsighted, Steven Johnson notes two techniques that can help overcome the bias. The first, called pre-mortems, asks you to imagine that the project has failed and figure out why it happened. The second, called red teaming requires that you set up an independent second team to find holes in the first team’s idea.

2. Confirmation Bias

As Daniel Kahneman noted in Thinking Fast and Slow, our brains are geared towards making quick judgments.  We tend to lock onto the first information set (called priming) which affects how we see subsequent data (framing), often regardless of its credibility. One we come to believe something, we will tend to look for information that confirms it and discount contrary evidence. We will also interpret new information differently according to our preexisting beliefs. When presented with a set of relatively ambiguous set of facts, we are likely to see them as supporting out position.

This plays out in the group setting in the form of conformity. Dissent and conflict are uncomfortable.  So, as Satell notes, if you were sitting in a New Coke planning meeting, would you have the courage to challenge the consensus view?

3. The Semmelweis Effect

In 1847, a young doctor named Ignaz Semmelweis, working in a maternity ward, discovered that a regime of hand washing dramatically lowered the incidence of childbed fever. Unfortunately, instead of being lauded for his accomplishment, he was castigated and considered a quack. The germ theory of disease hadn’t yet been accepted, so he attacked the establishment, rather than seek more confirming data.

The Semmelweis effect is the tendency for professionals to reject new knowledge that contradicts established beliefs that have served them well. In contrast, Jim Allison, who discovered cancer immunotherapy, initially found that pharmaceutical firms refused to invest in his idea. He fought back by collecting more data and convincing others with it. Unlike Semmelweis, who ended up dying in an insane asylum, Jim won the Nobel Prize.

What this means for you.

In any presentation of a new idea, you need to go beyond the current data-dump of information and dress it up to appear interesting to the audience. You need to identify the biases you might encounter with your audience, first, and then organize the presentation to overcome the biases that they will have.

The best way to do that is to get the perspectives of an outsider. Just as an “adjacent-outside expert” can help a negotiator be more effective (see prior blog), the presence of an “audience-driven presentation expert, can make all the difference between success and failure.

Share with us examples of how biases have impacted your investor, marketing, sales, and board presentations.