How Your Own Brain Limits Your Thinking (and What To Do About It)

Why is it that coming up with truly new and different ideas for our business (or our lives) can sometimes seem difficult? The answer is based in neuroscience.

All humans have cognitive biases, or mental shortcuts, that we use for problem solving. These cognitive biases operate unconsciously, so they limit our thinking in ways we’re not aware of.

In his book “Thinking Fast and Slow”, Daniel Kahneman describes that our brains have two types of thinking, and we actually can’t utilize them both at the same time. We constantly toggle back and forth between the two.

  • System 1 (Fast): is the “easier” type of thinking, and we use it whenever we can. It’s intuitive, unconscious, and automatic. It’s also energy-efficient. Our brains store no energy (there are no fat cells in our brains), so we rely on the more energy-efficient System 1 thinking most of the time.

  • System 2 (Slow): is thinking that requires more deliberation, more focus, more conscious thought—and thus, more energy. So we avoid it whenever we can. System 2 usually just monitors in the background, allowing System 1 to rule most of the time.

Our reliance on System 1 and avoidance of System 2 isn’t conscious; we simply do it without being aware of it. 

Here’s an example of how you may have experienced this in your own life.  If you’ve ever driven home from work, and realized once you arrived that you had no idea how you got there, you’ve experienced System 1 thinking.  Your route home is so familiar that it has become System 1 for you – it’s automatic.  You don’t have to think about it very hard.  You don’t have to use any energy thinking about it.

However, if you happened to run across a tree that had fallen across the road that required you to find a new way home, your brain would have kicked itself into System 2.

You’d have to expend a bit more energy and effort into figuring out how to get home that day.  But you probably wouldn’t have had a conscious thought that “I just went into System 2”.  It just happened, automatically, because your brain was forced to find a new solution.  And once you got around the roadblock and returned to your familiar route, your brain – again automatically and unconsciously – shifted back to System 1.

System 1 thinking involves associating new information with existing patterns, or thoughts, rather than creating new patterns for each new experience.  This has serious implications for innovation and creative thinking.  Because we unconsciously and automatically rely on System 1 most of the time, we regularly fall into the trap of relying on several cognitive biases – mental shortcuts – that limit our ideas, and we don’t realize our thinking is being shortchanged.

One result of our unconscious reliance on these cognitive biases is that – whenever we are faced with new information – we use it to simply refine our existing models/beliefs/hypotheses.  

Rarely do we assume new data means our existing beliefs might be wrong.  Instead, we make the most minimum adjustments possible to our existing beliefs that allows for the new data.  There is lots of well-documented evidence of cognitive biases that result in our holding on to our existing assumptions.

Further, the more experience and expertise we have in a particular topic, the more existing assumptions we have about it.  We are likely not even aware of all the embedded assumptions we have; many of them are so ingrained in our thinking that it wouldn’t even occur to us to question them.  They are presumed to be fact, if we even consciously recognize that we hold this belief.

Obviously, to get disruptive insights and ideas, we must go beyond the incremental thinking of System 1.

To get there, we need to consider the possibility that our view of the world (or the market, or our product category, etc.) might need shaking up. Given that our human tendency is to retain existing models, we need to consciously be doing things to help break ourselves out of this natural limitation on new thinking.

The video above illustrates an easy-to-learn, but very powerful, thinking tool that will help you avoid the Curse of Knowledge, an innovation killing cognitive bias that we all have.  The tool, called Presumption Purging™, will result in dramatically new thinking.  When you use this tool, the nature of the ideas that emerge will change.  That’s because you’re now not  limiting your creativity with artificial guardrails that arise from relying on your Curse of Knowledge.

Connor Trombley