radical Insights.

Weekly Research and Commentary on the Future of Business and Technology.

The Hidden Flaw in Forward-Thinking and Its Remedy.

Aug 1, 2023

You’re probably familiar with the idea of confirmation bias – the pervasive human tendency to seek out and prioritize information that supports our existing beliefs while systematically dismissing information that speaks to the contrary. Recently, researchers studying prospection – our ability to imagine and plan for futures – have been exploring a somewhat similar error common to how we envision the future. They call it the innovator’s bias.

As proposed by Andrew Reece and team (BetterUp labs), the innovator’s bias describes our inability to accurately assess potential harms and unintended consequences of new products and innovations that we ourselves create. In other words, we are consistently poor evaluators of the risks inherent to the futures that we might be the most invested in bringing to life. In a series of experiments, Reece & co found that subjects who had been primed to have a sense of ownership over a generally neutral hypothetical new product routinely rated that product more favorably in terms of its potential for benefit vs. harm than did a control group.

You don’t have to look too hard to find historical (Facebook’s Open Graph) and likely current (any number of today’s generative AI tools) examples of the innovator’s bias at work in Silicon Valley – where the effect is doubtless compounded by intense competition, the dynamics of venture capital, etc. 

Interestingly – and happily, Reece suggests that there’s a relatively straightforward intervention for counteracting the innovator’s bias without totally killing the innovator’s enthusiasm for the work of building for the future. Asking innovators/owners to imagine the worst possible set of outcomes for the implications of their inventions seems to push their assessment of potential harms toward a more nuanced and less optimistically biased view.

The effect is to create some critical distance between innovators and the futures they might have gotten a bit too close to – allowing them to examine assumptions and hopefully, foster a new set of valuable and even socially beneficial design conversations. All of which reminds me of something our old friend Paul Saffo, a professor at Stanford and veteran Silicon Valley forecaster, likes to say: Sacred cows make the best burgers. (via Jeffrey)