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.

Tipos interesantes con ideas estupendas

Este es un post un tanto especial, en el que iré incorporando referencias a gente que escribe sobre temas que me interesan, inspiran y me llaman a la acción. Algunos son bien conocidos, otros no tanto, pero todos ellos reflexionan sobre asuntos que a cualquier persona apasionada por el desarrollo de negocio le resultan absolutamente imprescindibles.

Te animo a que participes mediante los comentarios aportando tus propias sugerencias.

Feliz Marketingstorming


Seth Godin

Todo un referente en el mundo del Marketing, sus post diarios suelen ser muy sencillos al mismo tiempo que profundamente interesantes. Tiene una habilidad pasmosa por ir como dicen los americanos “to the point”, con precisión de cirujano.


Dave Chaffey

Me entusiasma el blog de Chaffey: “Smart Insights”, con multitud de recursos para desarrollar estrategias de Marketing: plantillas, toolkits, modelos conceptuales. Sencillo, ameno y tremendamente útil.



Tom Fishburne

En esto del Marketing hay que tomarse las cosas con humor, y Tom Fishburne satiriza en sus tiras humorísticas las últimas corrientes marketinianas llegando al “hueso” del asunto. Su capacidad de síntesis me resulta prodigiosa.




Deborah Mills-Scofield

Descubrí a Deborah Mills-Scofield a través del magnífico blog http://switchandshift.com/ en el que escribe frecuentemente. Su trayectoria profesional ha estado vinculada a AT&T Bell y actualmente es consultora en Estrategia. Sus reflexiones destilan la sabiduría de los profesionales con solera.



Greg Satell

Su blog “Digital Tonto” me parece de lo más interesante en el panorama actual en cuanto a reflexiones frescas y nada convencionales sobre Estrategia. Colaborador en Forbes y Harvard Business Review, es sin duda todo un descubrimiento.



Tom Peters

Hablar de Tom Peters es hablar de la búsqueda de la excelencia en la gestión empresarial. Si Peter Drucker inventó el “management” como disciplina, Peters ha sido probablemente una de las personas que más a contribuido a su desarrollo en las últimas décadas.



Rita Gunther McGrath

Su libro “The end of competitive advantage” habla del fin de la ventaja competitiva en su formulación clásica, frente a la ventaja transitoria basada en la capacidad de adaptación al entorno competitivo y a las nuevas necesidades de los clientes. Aire fresco para la disciplina de la Estrategia.



Shane Parrish

Alias del editor del interesantísimo blog Farnam Street, su magnífica colección de modelos mentales y sus análisis sobre cómo razona la mente humana merecen suscribirse a su lista de correo.



Rafael Martínez Alonso

Rafael es profesor de Estrategia en IE Business School y Director de Alianzas en Telefónica. Su libro “El manual del estratega” es una revisión a las diferentes formas de hacer Estrategia en una organización. Su Twitter es simplemente genial.


David Sibbet

Fundador de The Groove, es una de las figuras más relevantes a nivel mundial sobre “Visual Thinking” tanto como herramienta para facilitar sesiones de trabajo como para reflexionar sobre estrategia de negocio.


Richard Rumelt

Profesor en UCLA Anderson, Rumelt realiza en su libro “Good Strategy, Bad Strategy” una aproximación práctica a en qué consiste una buena estrategia empresarial. Ha sido fundador de la Strategic Management Society y centra su labor actual en la consultoría y la divulgación.


Alexander Osterwalder

Se ha hecho mundialmente famoso en el mundo “start-up” gracias a la herramienta de modelización de negocios “Business Model Canvas”. Se encuentra terminando un nuevo libro centrado en la propuesta de valor que seguro resultará igualmente práctico e interesante.



Roger Martin

Antiguo Decano en la Rotman School of Management, me resulta una de los autores contemporáneos más relevantes en el ámbito de la Estrategia empresarial. Autor de numerosas columnas en Harvard Business School.




Tim Kastelle

Su blog “The discipline of innovation” es una referencia en asuntos de Innovación o como dice Kastelle “executing new ideas to create value”. Profesor en Queensland Business School, es muy activo en Twitter.



Mario López de Ávila

Mario lleva más de 10 años escribiendo sobre Lean, emprendimiento y la sociedad del conocimiento. Es sin duda uno de los referentes en Castellano sobre estos asuntos. Muy activo en Twitter, es además profesor en IE Business School.



José Ángel de Miguel

Uno de los pioneros en Lean Startup en España, su blog “Yo Emprendo” resulta una cita obligada para todo aquel que busque aire fresco en procesos de desarrollo de clientes.



Marc Vidal

Emprendedor y analista económico, Vidal acumula más de dos décadas arrancando proyectos en Internet. Su Twitter no tiene desperdicio.



Javier Megías

Gran comunicador en el ámbito del diseño de nuevos modelos de negocio, su blog resulta siempre ameno y muy revelador.




Conor Neill

Profesor de IESE, su blog es uno de los mejores que conozco sobre Comunicación, aunque también trata asuntos relacionados con el Liderazgo y con la toma de decisiones. Es un “must”.



Iván Díaz

Considero su blog Branzai uno de los referentes sobre Branding en Castellano. Sus talleres sobre creación de marca aplicando la metodología “LEGO Serious Play” son una maravilla.




Malcolm Gladwell

Ensayista canadiense con algunos libros que merece la pena leer para acercarse a la Sociología desde una perspectiva sencilla y amena. Es famosa su teoría de las 10.000 horas de práctica necesarias para dominar cualquier disciplina.



Daniel Kahneman

Aclamado por su magnífica obra “Thinking fast and slow”, el Profesor Kahneman es quizá una de las personas vivas más versadas en la disciplina del “Behavioral Economics”. Ganador del Premio Nobel de Economía en 2002 pese a ser psicólogo de formación, es profesor en Princeton.


Barry Schwartz

Psicólogo americano y gran divulgador acerca de cómo la mente humana toma decisiones, su lectura es deliciosa para todo aquel que quiera entender mejor las palancas que maneja el consumidor al elegir entre nuestros productos.


Alain de Botton

Filósofo británico con una capacidad pasmosa para interpretar los dilemas del alma humana en la vida moderna. Su Twitter siempre invita a la reflexión.



Dan Ariely

Profesor de “Behavioral Economics”, su libro “Predictable Irrational” es una joyita con magníficas aplicaciones en el mundo del Marketing. Entiende como pocos el funcionamiento de la mente humana en la toma de decisiones.




Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Ensayista libanés, su primer libro “Fooled by randomness” sorprendió a propios y extraños al explicar con gran naturalidad el efecto del azar en los fenómenos financieros. Desde entonces, su obra se centra en cuestionar el mito del control y la fortaleza de las empresas y las organizaciones frente al papel que juega el azar.


Umair Haque

Economista, director de Havas Media Lab y agitador de neuronas. Escribe habitualmente en Harvard Business Review con un estilo provocador y transcendental.



Tim Harford

Economista británico que gracias a su libro “The undercover economist” y sus columnas en el Financial Times, se ha convertido por derecho propio en uno de los divulgadores más aclamado explicando fenómenos de la vida actual desde el punto de vista económico.




Maria Popova

Si necesitas inspiración, la lectura de su blog Brain Pickings es como abrir la ventana y respirar aire fresco. Con asuntos que van desde el arte a la filosofía, leer a María ayuda a desconectar de los asuntos de empresa y adentrarse en otras disciplinas.



James Altucher

James Altucher consigue explorar las emociones humanas más básicas y algunas de las palancas más poderosas que maneja el Marketing (miedo, confianza, pertenencia,…). Trader, inversor y ensayista, Altucher nunca te deja indiferente.