Five Hidden Cognitive Biases That Keep Us From Our Best Creative Work

Whether we write, paint, build, move, or think — our minds are wired to sabotage our success

Five Cognitive Biases That Harm Your Productivity

As creators we’ve got a huge responsibility. If we want to get paid we’ve got to do the work. We’ve got to make work that matters to others and we’ve got to create work of such quality that our audience will want to stick with us.

We rely on our minds to see our work to the end. If we don’t finish what we start we’ll have nothing to sell.

While we push and hustle our way through production, there are some invisible forces at play that can sabotage our work if we’re not careful. These forces are called cognitive biases — tricks our minds play as we work through our projects that matter most to us.

On one hand we care more than anyone about the work we do. On the other, we’re our worst enemy when it comes to self-reflection.

In the story ahead, I’ll give you five cognitive biases that harm our creative productivity and might prevent our best work from happening if we fall into their trap.


1. The sunk-cost fallacy

The sunk-cost fallacy effects us everywhere. It means we feel as though we should keep working (and spending money) on failing projects where we’ve sunk a ton of time and money already.

Let’s say I’m writing a book. I spent six months writing it and $3,000 in advertising over three months post-publication. The book sells few copies. Of those sold the reviews are not good. It’s clear the book is not good.

My mind may trick me into sinking more time and money into the project. The sunk-cost fallacy makes me want to spend twice as much on advertising and a few hundred more hours re-writing a bad book.

We need to recognize it’s time to walk away.

Yes, the money and time lost hurts. But doubling the efforts and tripling the lost funds won’t make anything better. As creators we will ship a product no one wants, or a project that’s a flop (no matter how much research we did in advance).

We can’t get more done by doing more of what isn’t working.

As innovators, failure is part of the process. We’ll ship work that doesn’t work. The hard part is not digging a deeper hole, using two shovels instead of one. The hard part is taking our licks, tossing the failed project in the trash, and starting the next one before we waste more time an energy on a project that will never fly.


2. Status quo bias

This is the situation where we prefer our environment and situation to the way is already is, versus willingness to accept something novel.

As creators this bias can be a huge, internal fight.

We feel like we’re innovators, but perhaps we keep producing work inside a larger, comfortable category or box.

For example, let’s say you’ve worked at a job you hate for a long time. Sure, they pay you well, but status quo kicks-in and holds you back. You prefer the environment you’re already in, versus taking the leap to an unknown job.


3. The endowment effect

This is the bias to give more value to the things we own, simply because we own them. A famous study was done with coffee mugs. Half the room was given a mug to keep, while the other half didn’t get a mug.

The participants were then asked to value the mugs.

The group that owned the mugs was asked the lowest price they’d be willing to part with their mugs. This group averaged over $5. While the group without mugs was asked the most they’d be willing to pay for the mugs. The have-nots offered around $2.50 for the mugs.

As creators this is critical. Just because we made something doesn’t mean it’s got the same value to our customers. We’ve got to step outside our personal feelings for the work and look at the actual price we can command from the real-world market.

We don’t want to be stuck selling five-dollar mugs in a two-dollar marketplace.

This also leads to the bias called the IKEA effect, where people place more value on things they’ve partially-made themselves (like putting together a pre-made bookcase).


4. Overconfidence bias

This is the bias where we believe we’re better than we are. Maybe we believe we have more skill than we do, or we know more than the average person in our niche.

As creators, overconfidence can be a humbling experience.

If we don’t learn to accept help from others or listen to other experts in our niche, we won’t exist long in our industry. We can never stop learning. If we’re not growing we’re shrinking. There is no stasis.

No matter how much work you’ve put into your craft, overconfidence will stifle your growth. True masters are the ones who know they don’t know everything.

We don’t have all the answers. Our best set of skills fall within a small window. The rest of the skills need assistance from others.


5. Narrative fallacy

I really like this one, because I’m a writer. Narrative fallacy is bias that we’re attracted to story — as humans. Story is the way we deliver information others can remember after the first telling.

With the narrative fallacy we cling to the stories we can relate to.

Even if the end result is bad, we may choose the path regardless — all because we prefer a certain story.

Let’s say we really love Earnest Hemingway. We love his artificial, public personae (which Hemingway invented). If we took his story literally, we may feel it OK to become an alcoholic writer, or we feel we need to damage ourselves if we want to become great writers.

The glamorous story didn’t end well for Hemingway, but it’s so compelling his drunken state has become one of the standard images of a professional writer. If we’ve got this self-destructive story burned into our creative minds it won’t be long before we make poor decisions for ourselves.


Knowing they’re in there is half the battle

Once we can recognize the cognitive biases in our work we can fix them. We need to focus on our audience and bring them the tools (or entertainment) they need to make their own lives better.

It’s best to be humble.

As creators we’re in a constant battle with our thoughts. Remember to take a step back, pause, and ensure you’re not following a false outcome, all because you put in the work.

The work alone doesn’t create good work.

Good work is created by taking risks — zigging when the others zag, and having the courage to question your decisions. It’s time to put the microscope on your craft.

We’re waiting for you.

As a follow-up to this story I wrote a second piece with five more biases. Perhaps you’ll enjoy this as well. You can read it here:

…and if you’re a creator, it’s critical you own your list: