How Human Biases Inhibit Innovation


In a typical second, the human body sends 11 million bits of information to the brain, an amount that is impossible for the conscious mind to process. Multiple psychological studies have revealed that the subconscious mind executes over 90% of actions and decisions. This exemplifies how, though powerful, the human brain is limited. To deal with the vast amounts of information it’s exposed to, the human brain has to develop neural shortcuts to simplify decision-making. Although useful, these shortcuts are deeply buried in the unconscious mind and allow for cognitive biases. Such biases form through societal and parental influences and lead to the construction of subjective realities that affect people’s interpretation of their world. Essentially, cognitive biases are errors in judgment that arise due to unconscious predispositions. Regardless of the type and magnitude, biases are defense mechanisms that prevent humans from innovating and changing. They encourage people to stick to what they know and block the ability to adapt and empathize. 

Biases are people’s default ways of thinking, meaning that acting in line with a particular bias implies no extra conscious work. Thus, humans are encouraged by their biases to stick to what they already know, limiting growth and innovation. As stated by Felipe Naranjo, AP Psychology and philosophy teacher, “Sometimes a new way of understanding something is a cognitive challenge that implies effort, and we don’t want to make an effort. We have this tendency always to desire comfort.” Concrete examples of such desire for comfort are the status quo bias – the tendency to like things to stay the same – and the law of the instrument, which implies an overreliance on familiar tools. These biases affect the majority of the population and are widely responsible for the lack of human-driven innovation. After trying out a successful method of performing a task, people tend to reject any new processes or strategies proposed. Hence, due to biased preferences and the desire for comfort, humans are unwilling to develop new ways of thinking, acting, and solving problems. In our minds, the traditional way is more than enough. However, in a society that is advancing technologically at lighting speed, old-fashioned biases and comfort zones will not suffice to keep humanity up to the chase. It may be valid to argue that people are aware of their own desire for comfort, leading to a change of mindset and propel innovation. Regardless, biases remain primarily in the unconscious part of the brain. Thus, no matter how much humans convince themselves of their potential to escape comfort, the brain is neurologically wired to prefer previously-explored paths and methods. Essentially, cognitive challenges and new ways of understanding are not desired by the unconscious mind, which perpetuates biased actions and limits development. 

Furthermore, cognitive biases block people’s ability to adapt and consider different points of view. Due to biases’ unconscious nature, individuals often fail to realize the validity of other perspectives and have trouble letting go of prejudiced thoughts and behaviors. Considering how the brain processes and categorizes information, biased thoughts occur in a split second before the conscious mind can react. In a specific experiment, a science faculty rated male applicants for a laboratory manager position as significantly more competent and hireable than female applicants. This happened even after researchers highlighted their biased actions. Experiments and situations like this reflect how biases dictate most of people’s judgments and actions. Individuals are often unable to adapt to new circumstances because their reactions will always be based on their old, unconscious cognitive biases. Likewise, since a person’s rationale is based on their cognitive biases, it’s a great ordeal to consider a different perspective. This would imply that all previous actions were irrational and invalid. In an era where information is growing exponentially, this is an obstacle for progress. True innovation can not be attained, as people will not be able to adapt to new realities and will, instead, use the growing amount of information to confirm their existing biases. It’s valid to consider that, in our modern society, technology has the potential to be the primary source of innovation, due to its neutral and bias-free nature. However, studies have demonstrated how unconscious biases are often transmitted into AI, as the algorithms are human-made. Even worse, since these technologies learn independently, biases are often accentuated and can have worse repercussions than those within the original human being. Biases interfere significantly with actual progress, considering they difficult adaptation and the development of an open mindset. 

Finally, cognitive biases significantly block human beings’ ability to empathize with others, as internal preferences, emotions, and predispositions distort the understanding of another person’s experience. According to research from Massive Science, brain regions such as the right supramarginal gyrus and the inferior parietal lobe enable empathy between individuals. However, when two people have contrasting experiences, these regions function abnormally, which skews the perception of others’ feelings. In other words, one individual is likely to interpret another person’s emotions in terms of their circumstances and feelings. This highlights how biases prevent people from achieving genuine empathy. Two people will never have the exact same experiences and feelings at a given point in time. Similarly, due to different societal influences, no one shares the same cognitive biases. Thus, a person’s “understanding” of what another individual is going through is simply a reflection of their own internal situation. Such lack of empathy brought upon by cognitive biases greatly inhibits innovation and development. Due to errors in judgment, no one can truly think solely about what another person wants and needs. Hence, society can not prosper to its full potential, as each human being is primarily motivated by self-interest. Some may argue that individual empathy is not required to achieve change and development, as group empathy is enough. However, psychological studies have revealed that people have high empathy for the group they belong to and low empathy for the group they oppose. Therefore, the same phenomena are present at the group level, too. Empathy is a requirement to achieve progress in all areas of society, as humanity is an interconnected race. Yet, biases create blind spots that prevent humans from comprehending the actual reality of others, which holds back innovation. 

The role cognitive biases have on innovation and development is evident and substantial. Unconscious biases dictate human’s default way of thinking and acting, which often leads to errors in judgment and subjective interpretations. Most importantly, biases motivate people to stay in their comfort zones and greatly inhibit adaptation and empathy. Because of this, humanity cannot develop to its full potential, and true innovation is rare. Although neural shortcuts are needed to process information, biases must be studied in depth to surpass and achieve meaningful change.