The illusion of having good [or bad] ideas

How to deal with cognitive biases

Everyone has ideas.

Now and then everyone has her/his own opinion about what would be a good solution for a certain problem, a good thing to say at a given moment and so on. We act and react to the world all the time. It is our inherent creativity and problem-solving skills at work.

But you know, we also make mistakes. Here and there, we face negative and unexpected effects of our actions. I am sure that at least occasionally you might look behind, see something that did not reach the desired outcomes, think “oh, maybe I should have done it in a different way” and strive to do better in the future.

How to distinguish good and bad ideas? Certainly, there is no magic formula.

We interpret, make decisions and come up with ideas based on what we have at hand — values, previous experiences, acquired knowledge, access to information and more.

Naturally, everyone is ruled by a beautiful curse: one cannot know everything. It sounds obvious but it is valid to remind that a person’s experiences are limited only to those ones that she/he were able to live. In addition, as Marcelo Gleiser [physicist and astronomer] said, “the ‘known’ is an island surrounded by the ‘unknown’”. As we expand our knowledge, the island grows and so its borders with ignorance.

We cannot know it all but we will live this life anyway and our thinking will navigate through reality’s complexities.

In order to get better outcomes through better ideas, let’s start getting awareness about cognitive biases.

In the words of M. G. Haselton, D. Nettle and D. Murray, “a cognitive bias is a pattern of deviation in judgment, whereby inferences about other people and situations may be drawn in an illogical fashion.”

It means that eventually your ability to interpret the world is unbalanced.

Unfortunately, as mentioned by D. Kahneman, D. Lovallo and O. Sibony,”an insidious feature of cognitive failures is that we have no way of knowing that they’re happening: We almost never catch ourselves in the act of making intuitive errors. Experience doesn’t help us recognize them.”

Cognitive biases’ origins and detection are blurry but their existence is undeniable. They exert strong influence on our decisions and relationships [within personal and professional fields]. Therefore, they influence what organizations and governments do.

There are many kinds of cognitive biases and here I will highlight few that I have noticed while working with companies and institutions who were striving to be innovative or were facing complex challenges.

Prior hypothesis and confirmation bias: when people already have an idea in mind and tend to reject arguments and evidences that contradict it.

Illusion of manageability: when people overestimate the extent to which an outcome is under their control or an unwanted effect [of their actions] can be reduced by some extra effort.

Focusing effect: when people focus too much on one aspect of an idea and lack a broader or more integrative perspective.

You can check many more here.

Reading this post will not make you cognitive-bias-proof. Actually, it should not anyway. Being able to interpret and “distort” reality on your unique way is a valuable source of invention.

Otherwise, we can develop few strategies to mitigate some negative effects of these intuitive errors.

First, for group decision making, try to help your partners to spot their possible cognitive errors. For that, talking about psychology theories and “the evil cognitive bias” will not help at all. Just try to make them reflect on a different idea or point of view.

Second, when dealing with your own ideas, consider questioning your goal [what is the true goal of that idea you had?] and be proactive to explore other ideas, insights and knowledge [even if they initially do not seem appropriate to reach that goal].

More than anything, do not be trapped by being aware of cognitive biases. In the future, you may feel tempted during a discomforting discussion to look for cognitive biases on others and subdue their opinions. By believing that you see clearer than they do, you may have developed one of the most dangerous biases.

Only a personal belief/value can keep you free: know that we are all the same — each one of us doing our best with who we are. Moreover, before changing others try to evolve your own wisdom and knowledge. We all can be better [yep, that is one of my biases].


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I work with organizations to make innovation happen.
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