Cognitive biases: Unreasonable decisions, old ideas, less innovation?

Teamwork with brains: More difficult than you think

If you want to develop creative – or even innovative – solutions alone or in a team, you have to make an effort. However, this is something that our brain tries to avoid in a not so subtle way. In this article, we will shed light on exactly what is going on in our heads.

We recently published a blog article about behavioural economics. We have found that people rarely act and think rationally or consciously, and we have discussed to what extent this is important when we design human-centered products. However, this subconscious irrationality not only plays a role on the user side, but is also present in the context of organisations, teams and our daily work. This especially becomes visible when we are looking for new ideas, and when creativity is required in order to abandon old patterns of thought and action. This article highlights the mechanisms we encounter in the (joint) search for creative solutions as well as the significance they have.

Thinking models from design and psychology

First, we look at two basic ideas from psychology and design research, which will form the basis for our further thoughts:

Model 1: Two systems at work

Daniel Kahnemann on cognitive biases

Daniel Kahnemann is one of the most important living psychologists. He has been the only representative of his discipline to receive the Nobel Prize for Economics since 2002 and laid the foundations for today’s behavioral economics back in the late 1970s. In his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow“, published in 2012, Kahnemann distinguishes between two “systems” that our brain uses to process information and make decisions:

System 1 – thinking fast

This system works fast, automatically and emotionally. It is permanently active and performs cognitive and social routine tasks for us on the basis of rough heuristics and stereotypes. Since these routine tasks make up the largest part of our existence, these processes usually take place outside of our conscious perception.

System 2 – thinking slow

System 2 is slower. Much slower. We use this system to actually “think” and “work”: With System 2, people think logically, calculatingly and strategically. However, since this burns valuable calories, in the past it was less suitable for daily survival than the energy-conserving System 1.

Our brain likes to save energy, so it reliably falls back on learned patterns that it can automatically apply. This mechanism leads to so-called cognitive biases that produce – sometimes minor, sometimes dramatic – misjudgements of reality. Some of these “cognitive biases” have already been covered in our blog post on Homo Weirdos.

For the context of the (creative) work it is now important to note that our brain runs almost exclusively “on autopilot”. If we don’t consciously focus on this, we fall back on the familiar and the proven. This has consequences for solution and decision making in the business context, because one could say that our autopilot rejects innovation.


Model 2: Two modes of thinking in design research

The Double Diamond – Divergent and Convergent Thinking

From design research, we know the Double Diamond model as defined by the British Design Council in 2005. It visualizes a pattern that can be regarded as universal for design processes. The model distinguishes between alternating phases of divergent thinking and convergent thinking.

Divergent thinking

is geared towards exploration, towards collecting information and ideas, and towards opening up a space of possible solutions. In these phases of the creative process, the aim is to consciously expand the set of parameters and perspectives, to allow for ambiguities and contrasts and to explore them.

Convergent thinking

Convergent thinking aims at sorting, evaluating and narrowing down the previously disclosed information and ultimately making precise decisions. The scope of possibilities is narrowed down to one or very few concrete tasks (define) or solutions for the previously defined problem (deliver).

What both modes of thinking have in common: They are exhausting. Kahneman’s “System 2”, i.e. unbiased, analytical or strategic thinking, is at the core of both. The goal of solving problems is often connected to finding solutions beyond the prevailing status quo. The combination of both ways of thinking is needed in order to develop something new as goal-oriented and, in the sense of profitability, as rational as possible. Unfortunately, though, our brain is literally stupid about this.


Cognitive biases affect our work

Divergent thinking: How our brain shapes our search for ideas and solutions

Humans have a hard time abandoning their usual ways of thinking. As a result, we view the world with a personal bias. The ideas we “invent” necessarily have to be based in some way on our personal experiences, imprints and knowledge. No matter what our biography, we all have only one perspective on the world. This unique position makes it difficult for us as individuals to attempt to develop a broad scope in divergent thinking.

In this context, we can summarize two larger clusters of cognitive biases into categories:


1. Information management

We have already dealt with this problem in the context of Homo Weirdos: We humans cultivate a stable world view and, accordingly, we seek out information that fits our existing ideas. We actively build a framework that supports our personal reality and makes it appear valid. On the other hand, we tend to reject information that doesn’t fit our beliefs. We even stick to what we have learned once, if it is demonstrably incorrect – because it would be so much more exhausting to adapt our view of the world by means of System 2. On top of that, we prefer to hear things that promise us “simple solutions“, that just “sound” credible or seem to make sense at first glance. System 1 therefore plays an important role in our handling of information, even though we all like to see us as logical and deliberate thinkers.


2. Search for solutions

This problem is recognized as an actual problem by more people. The search for new, surprising solutions, the “thinking out of the box” is really difficult for many of us. This is especially noticeable in our practical handling of our environment: We usually use objects exactly according to the function that is attributed to them; we regularly approach tasks and problems with proven or known methods. At the same time, we tend to focus too much on individual ideas when we have them, and even if they apparently don’t work, we hold on to them for too long. We also use  recurring patterns when we deal with our environment or our fellow human beings. We use stereotypes and rules of thumb, which we then (possibly incorrectly) apply when we are confronted with specific situations or groups of people.

All in all, these patterns make for a bad premise when we try to find solutions in the context of divergent thinking. Working in an unbiased and open way is harder than staying in familiar waters.


The Team as a Savior: Limitless Creative Potential?

Berti Vogts, a former coach of the German national football team, once famously said that “the star is the team.” This is a surprisingly modern outlook, since in today’s companies hardly anyone is forced to look for ideas on their own anymore. The assumption of the hour is that creative work is always done best in a team. The team members’ individual differences, their opinions, attitudes, professions and personalities interconnect in this setting, and the individuals’ limited views are compensated for in this way. A team might be able to develop more and better ideas as well as find the best solutions for a companies problems!

Unfortunately, this is not so easy in practice. Because the thing that is supposed to make teamwork effective, namely bringing together different perspectives, is often unpleasant for the individuals. In a team setting, personal views are often being challenged – which, again, is exhausting and contradicts our brain’s goal of avoiding too much effort. Our brain reflexively tries to avoid the required assumption of perspective. After all, we are talking about humans here that have inherited rules of social conduct from quite primitive ancestors.

Accordingly, decisions that are made in a team can also be very unreasonable. The following are only two extreme scenarios that are commonly known.


Scenario 1: Group Think

Group Think is not a buzzword for nothing and perhaps you know the situation yourself: Everyone in the team is in total agreement and people outdo each other by making statements in agreement with an idea, emphasizing its positive qualities and supporting it with evidence. Especially seemingly “simple” ideas have the ability to spread quickly and become popular in group discourse. This can happen especially when a group consists of people who are similar in their views, character and previous knowledge. In fact, groups like to and often discuss information that is already known to everyone and consensus within the group. At the same time, there is a tendency for team members with dissenting opinions to express their concerns less often or adapt to the majority due to social pressure. It can be said that in such a situation the cognitive distortions of the (perceived) majority are socially amplified. Collectively, phenomena such as Confirmation Bias, Availability Cascade or Illusion of Validity are taken to extremes; all of them distortions that we can already observe at the level of the individual.

If such a dynamic arises, there is a great danger that a potentially critical decision will be made with a lot of enthusiasm and apparent agreement from all – even though the decision may be “wrong”. And unfortunately it is extremely difficult to notice and question this development in time, especially if the managers like it or if they favor a “quick” decision.


Scenario 2: General disagreement

People tend to make wrong judgements about themselves. We misjudge our personality traits in particular and often overestimate our positive qualities, while turn a blind eye on the negative ones. In addition, our so-called Bias Blind Spot ensures that we are not even aware of our false self-perception. With others, however, we definitely do notice their unreasonableness. You probably know for yourself the enormous cognitive effort it takes to admit that you are wrong in a heated discussion.

In cognitive research, a number of mechanisms have been identified that influence our attitudes towards our own statements. Among them is the tendency to regard one’s own views as rather “normal” and to believe that most people agree with them. We rarely question our own assertions and are disproportionately certain that they are correct. In addition, we like to overestimate our own competencies. Especially well known in this context is the Dunning Kruger effect: people like to see themselves as more competent – and others as less competent – than it would appear from the outside.

If we want to agree on a common perspective and make decisions together, the combination of these ego-related thought patterns is not a good basis for truly open discussions.


Convergent thinking: the problem with decision-making

Let’s assume that a team is supposed to come up with some ideas or solutions. Which ideas can be developed, and how? Which ones are sensible, practicable and can be pursued further? Which ones do we choose in the end? While the search for ideas in a team might really work out better than alone, choosing ideas and making decisions can become tricky. In every team situation, there are mechanisms at play that make it very difficult to reach rational decisions. Even if everyone is totally satisfied at the end of the process we can fall victim to them.


Everything is broken – What do we do?

My motivation to write this article is to spread awareness that patterns of irrationality do not only appear in “the users” or “the others”. Recall all of the above horror scenarios from stubbornness to untraceable naivety in your mind’s eye; and now put yourself in the limelight. Stay with this thought a moment.

… now it might be easier to deal emphatically with the smaller quirks and bigger problems in our environment. Perhaps you will occasionally find the freedom to take a breather and ask yourself where you stand with your own impulses and thoughts. The knowledge of our own limits of rationality can help us to view problems as well as fellow human beings more value-free and to act more self-consciously and productively.

This costs our brains a lot of energy. Let’s start including the mental effort required in the plans for our daily routines.