The Dangers Of The ‘Optimism Bias’ For Innovation

Tali Sharot has a TED talk describing research into “The Optimism Bias”. Her studies show that 80% of us are optimists in that we are persistently optimistic about our own future. Her research also shows that this optimism is not significantly affected by experience. We do not learn from our mistakes of optimism. We can be counted on to remain optimistic despite clear evidence to the contrary.

The TED Talk can be viewed here: 

The Optimism Bias has the potential to create a real blind spot when it comes to innovation. Consumer’s often get romanced by an idea and imagine an optimistic future where they think they will be regularly consuming your new product or service. Sounds perfect, doesn’t it?

But the implications of the Optimism Bias are that you often end up with innovations that research brilliantly well and fall at the first hurdle when they get to market? This is because as people we have an inherent trait to underestimate risk, or learn from past behaviour (our mistakes especially). We believe this has a massive impact on the poor innovation success rates we face today, whereby 70% of all innovations fail within 2 years of launching.

The trick is to give people context and a reality check of what they asking for, or committing to.

Here are our top tips to help you counter the Optimism Bias in Innovation:

1. Make everything visual

When building ideas with consumers, visuals are far more effective than words as they stop people trying to rationalise their answers and tap in to their subconscious thoughts and feelings. Visuals also stop people making comments or statements without thinking through the consequences, as they just can’t picture it. They see what they are building, so nothing is conceptual or ethereal.

2. Provide lots of context

Show consumers today’s reality (e.g. fixture shots) and get them to ground what they are asking for in a this real life context. Likewise, show them a glimpse of the future by showing similar types of innovations from other parts of the world. This helps consumers envisage what could be possible – the possible “new world” feels more tangible and real, and they can therefore more accurately judge whether they could see themselves going there or not.

3. Be explicit about the consequences of behaviour

Paraphrase back to them what they are asking for. For example, “this means you will never buy Brand x again – you will be buying Innovation y on every occasion instead.” This will really shake out whether they have conviction in what they say they will imagine themselves doing in the future vs. what they are actually likely to do.

4. Recognise that your consumers have the capacity to see themselves other than they are

They may think they are nicer, more successful, more attractive than they perhaps are. Through using the principles of gamification, consumers will end up revealing their subconscious ‘workings’ to you, and along with this, out pours all of their contradictions and self delusions. It is a powerful tool to enable them to learn about themselves, and reconcile what they think they want – their self image, with what they actually want – their actual self.

5. Give consumers permission to criticise

We don’t believe in showing them neatly wrapped up ideas. By making all of the stimulus look rough and clichéd, consumers feel far more able to pull it apart and tell you what isn’t working. This makes them feel like you really need their help, so they get stuck into finding ways to make the idea better. Being upfront, and telling them they may see some whacky ideas, or some things that could feel totally wrong allows them to be more truthful about what would actually work, and project themselves in to a more realistic future situation.