What “The Princess Bride” taught me about Cognitive Biases in Service Design and Innovation management

“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” — Socrates

There is a number of reasons why “The Pricess Bride” became an iconic film in the 80’s. If you were not in love with Robin Wright (as Buttercup) or moved by the outstanding soundtrack created by Mark Knopfler it’s quite possible that you had no heart.

But the other reason why this modern fairy tale became so popular was the script, containing a number of scenes difficult to remove from our childhood memories. One of my favorites is “The battle of the wits between Vizzini and Westley”.

Vizzini captures Westley’s true love Buttercup, and Westley challenges the Sicilian in a battle of wits to the death. Westley, places two goblets of wine on the table, and informs Vizzini that one contains deadly «iocane powder.» Westley says, «The battle of wits has begun. It ends when you decide and we both drink and find out who is right… and who is dead.»

Vizzini then tries to guess Westley’s reasoning, pretending to figure out his strategy when placing the poisoned goblet.

To make the long story short, a number of cognitive biases while trying to figure out Westley’s strategy, push Vizzini to the wrong decision making. He drinks from one goblet and at the next minute, he dies. Apparently, Westley placed the deadly iocane powder in both glasses, but he had built up an immunity along the years.


I loved how my friend Antonio López (Chief Data Officer at Decathlon Spain) used this epic scene to illustrate how cognitive biases lead us to the wrong decision making during his keynote at Ironhack Madrid a couple of days ago.

Cognitive biases refer to the systematic ways in which the context and framing of information influence individual judgment and decision-making. They are mental shortcuts (known as heuristics) which are systematically used my Marketers and Service Designers everywhere in order to design killer product and services that are difficult for a consumer to resist.

The power of these biases is that no matter how conscious you are of their existence, it is quite difficult to avoid them when someone faces decision making in real time. They very often lead us to the wrong decision making in terms of rational choices but as the famous American psychologist Dan Ariely says, we Humans are by nature “predictably irrational”.

So why do humans have cognitive biases?

Most of our mental biases date back to a time when quick decisions determined our survival.

We should not judge the negative impact of humans developing cognitive biases as we evolved in the past based on the negative impact of them in current societies. This human brain characteristic made our ancestors survive in stressful situations where “fight or fly”where the only options and they had to react fast (almost instinctively) without much thinking. If our predecessors had to carefully analyze if a mammoth was about to attack or not, they would probably die.

But can we fight them?

Even the most trained people find it difficult to find the cognitive biases behind their reasoning. Some of the most popular technics though are:

·       Take your time: Set up a time to sit down and reflect before making big decisions, whether this means writing down your thoughts or just meeting with others to flesh some ideas out.

·       Avoid decision making under stress: Our body releases a cocktail of adrenaline and cortisol, which increases our heart rate, dilates our pupils and triggers tunnel vision. Every decision is better made after a single, deep breath.

·       Use decision trees: Evaluating the pros and cons for every decision being made and the cascade effects for each of the options.

·       Leverage mental models, although sometimes can be confused with cognitive biases, they are a different animal. A mental model is a representation of how something works. We cannot keep all of the details of the world in our brains, so we use models to simplify the complex into understandable chunks.

·       Have a “decision journal” and periodically review the most relevant decisions you made, when you made them, what were the outcomes and what info was available by the time you made the decision.

·       Purposefully surround yourself with people who are different from you and who have different opinions than you do.

·       Study them to acknowledge when you are being affected by any.

Why understanding cognitive biases is so relevant for Service and Product Designers?

Researchers Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman conducted a number of studies on cognitive bias and found that framing identical information differently (i.e., presenting the same information differently) can lead to opposing decisions being made. This means that cognitive biases play an important role in information design because they influence users or customers decision-making. How we present information on webpages and user interfaces can affect how likely users are to perform certain actions, such as purchasing a product or service.

How cognitive biases kill Innovation?

Known broadly as the “curse of knowledge” (or effect of knowing), biases rely on our experiences and ways of applying prior knowledge, particularly in decision-making. The more previous success you have had in applying that knowledge, the harder it is to imagine alternatives. This helps explain why older team members tend to struggle most to think divergently. Most decision making is instinctively guided and controlled by these rational short cuts, without us even being aware of it consciously. The result can be a negative impact upon creative and innovative thinking (especially in divergent ideation and conceptualization phases) where key decisions about what to take forward are made. Not keeping them in check can also mean you end up trying to solve the wrong problems whilst ignoring critical flaws only to repeat the same patterns again for future projects.


Please find below a list of frequent cognitive biases affecting our decision-making:

·       Confirmation bias, the tendency to seek out only that information that supports one’s preconceptions, and to discount that which does not. For example, hearing only one side of a political debate, or, failing to accept the evidence that one’s job has become redundant.

·       Framing effect, the tendency to react to how information is framed, beyond its factual content. For example, choosing no surgery when told it has a 10% failure rate, where one would have opted for surgery if told it has a 90% success rate, or, opting not to choose organ donation as part of driver’s license renewal when the default is ‘No’.

·       Anchoring bias, the tendency to produce an estimate near a cue amount that may or may not have been intentionally offered. For example, producing a quote based on a manager’s preferences, or, negotiating a house purchase price from the starting amount suggested by a real estate agent rather than an objective assessment of value.

·       Gambler’s fallacy (aka sunk cost bias), the failure to reset one’s expectations based on one’s current situation. For example, refusing to pay again to purchase a replacement for a lost ticket to a desired entertainment, or, refusing to sell a sizable long stock position in a rapidly falling market.

·       Representativeness heuristic, the tendency to judge something as belonging to a class based on a few salient characteristics without accounting for base rates of those characteristics. For example, the belief that one will not become an alcoholic because one lacks some characteristic of an alcoholic stereotype, or, that one has a higher probability to win the lottery because one buys tickets from the same kind of vendor as several known big winners.

·       Halo effect, the tendency to attribute unverified capabilities in a person based on an observed capability. For example, believing an Oscar-winning actor’s assertion regarding the harvest of Atlantic seals, or, assuming that a tall, handsome man is intelligent and kind.

·       Hindsight bias, the tendency to assess one’s previous decisions as more efficacious than they were. For example, ‘recalling’ one’s prediction that Vancouver would lose the 2011 Stanley Cup, or, ‘remembering’ to have identified the proximate cause of the 2007 Great Recession.

·       Availability heuristic, the tendency to estimate that what is easily remembered is more likely than that which is not. For example, estimating that an information meeting on municipal planning will be boring because the last such meeting you attended (on a different topic) was so, or, not believing your Member of Parliament’s promise to fight for women’s equality because he didn’t show up to your home bake sale fundraiser for him.

·       Bandwagon effect, the tendency to do or believe what others do or believe. For example, voting for a political candidate because your father unfailingly voted for that candidate’s party, or, not objecting to a bully’s harassment because the rest of your peers don’t.

El Marketing, la Economía y un cuenco de anacardos

anacardos marketing


“Great art is as irrational as great music. It is mad with its own loveliness”

George Jean Nathan


Imagina que tienes invitados esta noche en casa. Has preparado un delicioso asado digno de “Master Chef” pero como primera atención a tus comensales les ofreces unos aperitivos y un gran cuenco de anacardos.

Llegado el momento de servir el primer plato, retiras los frutos secos y ves cómo tus invitados respiran aliviados al poder dejar de hincharse con ellos en vez de reservar sitio para degustar la deliciosa comida.

Algo parecido a esta anécdota sucedió en los años 70 en casa de Richard Thaler, el reciente Premio Nobel de Economía 2017. El economista observó cómo sus invitados, que compartían profesión con él y eran gente formada, no podían resistirse a la tentación de los anacardos aun sabiendo que era irracional el no parar de comerlos. Desarrollando esta idea se interesó por las palancas que mueven a los individuos a la hora de elegir y explicar por qué, al enfrentarnos a dos opciones, normalmente escogemos la más fácil y no la más adecuada.

La teoría económica clásica ha creído que las decisiones humanas se regían por la razón. Sin embargo el desarrollo reciente de la Economía del Comportamiento (“behavioral economics”) ha puesto de manifiesto que los comportamientos irracionales son los más frecuentes en el ser humano.

Así, algunos casos de comportamiento irracional apoyados por estudios de los padres de esta disciplina (Daniel Kahneman y Amos Tversky) serían por ejemplo:

  • Si regalas a alguien un objeto, al tratar de recuperarlo más tarde deberás pagarle una cantidad superior a la que le hubiera costado a esta persona adquirirlo. Al desprenderse del objeto, el individuo le dota típicamente de un valor mayor que aquel que hubiera estado dispuesto a desembolsar por él para poseerlo.
  • A menudo elegimos no elegir y asumir lo que nos toque, porque tememos más la responsabilidad de haber elegido mal que las consecuencias de una mala elección.
  • Los seres humanos planificamos y ejecutamos. Y rara vez tomamos la misma decisión cuando estamos en modo “planificar” que cuando estamos en modo “ejecución”. Somos inconsistentes en nuestro criterio al acercarnos a la puesta en marcha de aquello que decidimos.

La “Teoría del Empujón” desarrollada por Thaler presupone que el ser humano tiene gran inercia a la hora de tomar decisiones y por este motivo resulta conveniente (aunque sus críticos le acusan de un cierto paternalismo) a la hora de desarrollar medidas públicas con gran impacto social, el dar a la población pequeños “empujoncitos” que les animen a tomar la decisión en la dirección que se presume correcta y más beneficiosa para ellos (ej: ir a la escuela gracias al incentivo que supone el acceso a un menú gratuito para las familias con pocos recursos).

El mérito de Thaler, profesor de la “University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business”, reside no tanto en haber desarrollado una disciplina en la que precursores como Thomas Schelling y Kahneman/Tversky ya habían avanzado de forma muy sustancial, sino en haber conseguido que los mecanismos de su “Teoría del Empujón” hayan sido considerados a la hora de diseñar políticas sociales en la Casa Blanca y el 10 de Downing Street.

La irracionalidad de nuestras decisiones individuales nos lleva como sociedad a frecuentes problemas de gran calado:

  • No ahorramos suficiente para nuestra jubilación, poniendo en riesgo la suficiencia de nuestro sistema de pensiones.
  • Invertimos en bienes inmobiliarios sin percibir la burbuja existente, contribuyendo a acelerarla.

Sin embargo cuando ciertas políticas gubernamentales utilizan pequeños “empujones” para corregir comportamientos sociales, pueden producir beneficios claros. Un ejemplo sería la iniciativa británica de haber inscrito de forma automática a los trabajadores en fondos de pensiones privados teniendo la oportunidad de salir de ellos en cualquier momento, lo que ha supuesto que el porcentaje de trabajadores cubiertos por estos fondos se haya elevado del 42% al 73% entre 2012 y 2016 en Inglaterra.

¿Y qué tiene todo esto que ver con el Marketing?

En casa de Thaler, el Marketing y la Economía siempre han ido de la mano. De hecho su mujer France Leclerc fue profesora de Marketing. En todo caso he aquí algunas de las múltiples lecturas que desde la disciplina del Marketing se pueden hacer a las teorías de Thaler:

  1. Si queremos provocar comportamientos en nuestros clientes, démosles ese “pequeño empujón”, pongámosles las cosas fáciles.

Un ejemplo sería el sistema de recomendaciones de Amazon. Una vez comprado un artículo, constantemente el sistema me recuerda que otros usuarios han comprado también otros objetos. En este caso el pequeño empujón para seguir comprando se ve reforzado por lo que los sociólogos denominan “la prueba social” (nos adherimos a una causa de forma más poderosa si observamos que muchos otros ya lo han hecho antes).

  1. La arquitectura del proceso de toma de decisiones, afecta a la decisión.

Un ejemplo sería a la hora de fijar tramos de precios para diferentes paquetes de productos. Cómo definamos esos rangos de precios nos puede permitir “empujar” al cliente hacia el producto que deseamos que compre (ej: tarifas telefónicas o de TV por cable).

  1. A menudo nos empeñamos en diseñar productos con multitud de características que el 80% de los usuarios no utilizan. ¿Menos es más?

Un ejemplo sería el de las cámaras réflex con múltiples opciones de control manual pero que incorporan además una función semiautomática que es la más utilizada por fotógrafos amateurs. Las opciones de la cámara son múltiples, pero el fabricante «empuja» al usuario no experimentado a utilizar una función con la que conseguir buenos resultados sin demasiado esfuerzo por su parte.

Nunca la Economía y el Marketing han ido más de la mano, y por ello me alegro enormemente por el galardón concedido por la Academia Sueca a Thaler. Si te interesan todos estos asuntos y quieres profundizar en su obra te animo a leer su best-seller “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness”.

Si Newton tuvo su manzana a la hora de formular la Ley de la Gravedad, la magnífica obra de Thaler puede decirse que surgió a raíz de un cuenco de anacardos en una cena con amigos. ¿Irónico e irracional, no es cierto?



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