Does cognitive bias kill creativity?

This article was originally published in the July issue of Website Magazine.

When you aim for a creative solution — not simply an incremental improvement, but a real innovation — you pick a fight with your own brain. A vast array of systematic deviations from optimal reasoning, which psychologists call “cognitive biases,” conspire to subvert your creativity. Here are six bias-infused errors you may recognize.

1. It’s not my fault, it’s default…

Defaults matter. Just ask Facebook about default privacy settings. But the tendency to choose the default option, called default bias, goes far beyond leaving the checkboxes checked. When you design, you unconsciously accept myriad default patterns you learned in school, at work or developed on your own, without thinking about more creative, appropriate solutions. How long were sites still organized as hundreds of nested tables after better approaches came along?

2. Thinking is what they made me do in school…

It’s no wonder today’s design looks strikingly similar to last year’s portfolio. Creative thinking is hard work. In fact, thinking is so enervating that we have evolved a tendency to avoid all but the most superficial cognition — a tendency called Miserly Information Processing. MIP drives us simply to replicate our previous ideas with minor tweaks, to provide only the minimum number of acceptable mock-ups and to take the client’s words as fact, even when we know we should question the so-called “requirements.”

3. If this is the wagon, I want to fall off…

Today it’s parallax scrolling and icon fonts. Yesterday it was frames and image maps. The design arena is so saturated with fads that discerning fundamental rules or patterns is nearly impossible. That’s the bandwagon effect — a kind of groupthink where the desire to adopt something increases as our peers adopt it. The problem is that the bandwagon effect can lead us to apply our shiny new toy to inappropriate situations and to overestimate the silver bullet-ness of new technology.

4. One step forward, three steps back, invent jetpack…

Great designers pour their emotions, their egos and their very identities into their work. Designers are invested, and when you get invested in a decision, reversing it feels terrible. This inconceivability of revisiting previous decisions leads to design fixation, “a blind adherence to a set of ideas or concepts limiting the output of conceptual design,” according to a Design Studies paper out of Texas A&M. Innovation demands willingness to revisit, change or abandon every aspect of the design. Creativity demands that we question exactly those principles, technologies and approaches that are most sacrosanct.

5. Weaknesses? What weaknesses?

When you look at a website, you do not see every pixel equally. Your attention is drawn to one area or another based on both the site’s design and your purpose in viewing it. So it is with life in general. We perceive reality selectively, attending to some things more than others. The issue is that we pay more attention to things that support our ideas, values and beliefs than things that refute them. This Confirmation Bias obscures the weaknesses of our designs to our own eyes and hinders critical reflection.

6. If it ain’t broke…

When Facebook (a free site, in case we have all forgotten) moves something, anything, even from one side of the window to another, the outcry is overwhelming, seemingly regardless of the functional or aesthetic implications of the adjustment. People tend to irrationally prefer and defend the status quo — an entwined pair of phenomena known as status quo bias and system justification. These biases not only underpin users’ irrational resistance to change, but also explain designers’ unthinking replication of similar interface patterns. Why, for instance, are we still storing “files” in “folders,” or more fundamentally, data in tables?


The worst of it is that these biases act collectively to shut down our creative and critical thinking. We end up solving the wrong problem using popular, but ineffective, approaches, ignoring or downplaying faults and then replicating the same toxic patterns in the next project. Fortunately, software engineering researchers are developing a host of simple practices for debiasing designers, but that’s another list.