Why it is important to understand the limitations of our brains

Our brains are powerful tools and a great evolutionary advantage. We have managed to survive and thrive with only this feature being more developed and advanced than any other creature on this planet.

Yet, as advanced and great our brains are, they have multiple flows. These flows shape how we think and how we approach problems.

Why is this important to entrepreneurs and startup founders? I will describe a few of the shortcomings of our brains with the goal to enhance a bit our meta-cognitive skills.

I want to make us all aware of how our brains can deceive us. Strangely enough, it would probably explain why we have so many project management and software development methodologies and the way they are aiming to help startup founders.

The reasons for the existence and creation of these frameworks and approaches, like Lean Startup and Agile, should become more logical. I find it helpful to know of ‘” why”, not just “what and how”.

We are biased

Yes, we are biased. We are biased in many ways and if we don’t understand how brains process information and events, we may become victims of our own way of thinking.

What would be the result of lacking metacognitive skills? It will probably result in wasted time and money, which is the case with many ideas and startup solutions.

Let’s review different biases and then try to understand how they affect our startup mentality.

Probably the most common and familiar bias is the confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is the tendency to notice, accept, remember, search for, favor and easier recall information that seems to support an existing belief and to ignore, distort, forget facts that contradict a belief.

When you started or while still building your startup, have you ever felt like “all the stars were aligning” in your favor? It is obvious that stars wouldn’t care less about your idea and what you want to do, but you simply started noticing things that were in your favor and avoiding and forgetting the things that are telling you to stop.

We are all guilty and are victims of our own confirmation bias. It is critical to understand that being objective about an idea is extremely difficult, almost impossible. That is why we need to rely on statistics and measurements, not on “gut feeling” and opinion.

To make the case stronger, let’s introduce another cognitive bias – the projection bias. To put it simply, we tend to use our own way of thinking and our own mind as a template to make predictions about the way other people think and act. This also applies to not only thinking but for example to falsely predict the future by projecting current preferences onto it.

Let’s add yet another bias we need to watch out for – the consensus bias. The consensus bias states that we tend to assume that our own opinions are in the majority and most other people share them.

The consensus and projection biases seem to be closely related, and they probably are, since they explain and define the fact that we tend to use our own thinking and assumptions, and then cast them over a wide audience.

Why do we do this? What makes us blind and susceptive to such ways of thinking.

I will throw-in yet another term, so be brave here – cognitive dissonance.

You can find different definitions of cognitive dissonance, but probably the simplest description (or the one I like) to understand is that people will do all in their power to change two inconsistent ideas so they become consistent. The strongest case is when a new idea or information clashes with an existing belief. The existing belief wins, the new idea is twisted to fit in.

I think it is easy now to see when you have an idea, your projection bias convinces you to think other people have the same needs and will be happy to sign up for your product. Not only that, but you do everything to convince nay-sayers that the majority of people will like your project (consensus bias). And when presented with opposing facts you will be rejecting them to favor your own belief, simply because you need to resolve the cognitive dissonance such facts create. How do you do this? Well, by selectively “coming across” facts that support your idea (confirmation bias).

What about our understanding of how good we are at what we can understand

I hope I was able, if nothing else, to put you on the right track to understanding better how your mind can deceive you. Understanding oneself is not easy. Knowing where our brains fall short should help us navigate trough idea valuation and feasibility analysis. At the end, who else could understand better your idea than you do? You are the expert in it.

Or are you?

Just to make things even more interesting, I have to mention one more cognitive bias.

In 1999 two psychologists – David Dunning and Justin Kruger have defined this cognitive bias, which is now known as the eponymous Dunning-Kruger Effect. We can call this meta-ignorance (or ignorance of ignorance). 

The Dunning-Kriger effect says that people who are incompetent at something are unable to recognize their own incompetence. It doesn’t end there – people not only fail to recognize their incompetence but they also likely feel very confident that they actually are competent.

All I am trying to say is as a founder you need to listen to other people’s opinions, find partners that are recognized experts in the area and industry you are addressing and be open to pivot.

Ways to mitigate our shortcomings

The good news is that there are people that think about these problems and are dedicated to develop and provide frameworks and methodologies to help us survive our own tendencies and biases.

It probably now the push to talk to customers and perform customer interviews sounds much more reasonable and is not going to be considered as a waste of time. This will help you mitigate your projection and consensus biases. Customer interviews will show you if your idea is actually appealing to other people as you expected and to what audience size too.

You will need to verify all your assumptions at any step of the way. That is why we have Agile methods of software development and Lean Startup methodologies. Small iterations, measure, derive conclusions, create a new hypothesis, repeat.

It all falls into place, doesn’t it?

Conclusion

In conclusion, we need to be very careful and verify our ideas often and in small iterations. Our own brains play games with us and if we don’t understand how we think and how our brains work, it may result in wasted resources to create something that nobody needs or like.

Our brains are great tools and our imagination can take us to new and interesting places. But as with any tool, learning to use it properly is the only guarantee for great results.


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