Inherence Bias

How do people judge what is socially good or desirable? One factor is what people consider to be inherent or typical. If something seems inherent or typical, people tend to infer that it is also good or socially desirable. Psychologists Christina Tworek and Andrei Cimpian of University of Illinois at Urbana-Campaign and New York University show in their 2016 study how inherence bias is associated with judgments of desirability.

Tworek and Cimpian began their paper with an example of a dissenting opinion of the US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts in the marriage equality case. In his opinion, Roberts basically says that historically all societies have been based on heterosexual marriage, thus only heterosexual marriage should be recognized. In essence, Roberts’ point is that if something has been a typical case in various societies it means it is socially desirable and good, and since only heterosexual marriage has been typically recognized in all societies so it is desirable in the United States to recognize only heterosexual marriage.

Inherence bias pervades all of our social and political debates, and the greatest problem with it is that it makes our thinking more rigid. For example, in their experiments Tworek and Cimpian asked their subjects to consider why we give roses as Valentine’s Day gifts and if it might be better to give other gifts instead of roses. The subjects naturally tended to focus on intrinsic features of roses such as their beautiful appearance and other inherent information. All of this made them more likely to think that roses should be the Valentine’s Day gift, and it also made them less willing to question status quo and consider other alternative gifts.

How Contextual Information Reduces Inherence Bias

Minimizing the inherence bias helps to make sure that people think more flexibly about an issue and are more inclined to consider alternatives to status quo. To achieve that, it is important to find and use contextual (extrinsic) information. In the example of roses as the Valentine’s Day gifts, the subjects became more willing to question status quo and be open to alternatives when they were given some contextual information, for instance, that a more important reason why we use roses as the Valentine’s Day gift is not their inherent appearance but rather the advertising and marketing by florists and also the fact that businesses needed a flower that could be imported in bulk from countries with milder February temperatures.

Why contextual information increases flexible thinking? Primarily because it makes it much easier to see that things could have turned out differently. The less you think that something is inevitable or necessary, the more likely you’ll be to question status quo and openly consider various alternatives.  In the example of the Valentine’s Day gifts, the context makes it easier to consider other scenarios, such as the possibility that businesses other than florists could have been more successful at marketing their products or that florists could have chosen other flowers than roses as their flagship product for the Valentine’s Day.


  • Christina M. Tworek and Andrei Cimpian. Why Do People Tend to Infer “Ought” From “Is”? The Role of Biases in Explanation. Psychological Science 1 –14 (2016). DOI: 10.1177/0956797616650875
  • Andrei Cimpian and Erika Salomon, The Inherence Heuristic: An Intuitive Means of Making Sense of the World, and a Potential Precursor to Psychological Essentialism. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 37, 461–527 (2014). doi:10.1017/S0140525X13002197

Hand Clenching for Memory Boost

The previous post discussed how squeezing a rubber ball may temporarily boost creative thinking. There is also a twist on this brain hack that may enhance memory.  A 2013 study by Ruth Propper and her colleagues found that hand clenching may enhance your ability both to remember new ideas as well as recall existing information.[1] However, the memory boost is likely to be small.

Also, the underlying neuroscientific model is a lot more dubious. This technique is based on the HERA model (Hemispheric Encoding/Retrieval Asymmetry), which basically says that left hemisphere is responsible for encoding of the new information and right hemisphere for retrieval. Further, an easy way to increase activation of the particular hemisphere is by clenching the contralateral hand (the hand of the opposite side). Read more »

Squeezing a Rubber Ball May Boost Creative Thinking

Psychological research suggests a simple brain hack for temporarily boosting creativity and all it requires is a rubber ball. The technique itself is extremely simple: all you have to do is squeeze a rubber ball with your left hand as hard as you can for about a minute.

An original study on this technique by four Israeli researchers (Goldstein et al., 2010) found that subjects who squeezed a rubber ball with their left hand solved noticeably more problems on a remote associates test, a standard test of convergent thinking. This form of creative thinking, usually contrasted with divergent thinking, is most useful for “connecting the dots:” combining existing information, comparing and juggling ideas, solving problems with some specified criteria, or extracting ideas from other information. A lot of real-world innovation or typical business problem-solving depends heavily on convergent thinking.

Read more at Psych Central.

When Distancing from the Problem Hurts Creative Thinking

Distancing from the problem, as the previous post discussed, is a solid method for increasing creativity: studies generally show that psychological distance helps with insight and creative generation because it leads to abstract information processing. Although there is little doubt that psychological distance is often invaluable for creative thinking, there are solid reasons why any one-sided recommendation to distance from the problem is counterproductive. Read more »

Why Distancing From the Problem Helps Creative Thinking

One of the most widely prescribed creativity recommendations is to increase distance from the problem, for example, by imagining the problem in the distant future or by considering how other people would solve it. This recommendation traditionally circulated in popular creativity books and other similar sources, but over the last decade, it has also received some research backing.

So understandably, the idea that creativity rises when we distance ourselves from the problem is becoming more and more generally accepted. The next post will discuss two major reasons why such one-sided recommendation is dangerous because sometimes distancing might impair creative thinking, and this post briefly summarizes research showing that psychological distance enhances creative thinking. Read more »

5 Ways to Stimulate Abstract Mindset and Broader Mental Perspectives

Abstract mindset and information processing is very important for creativity, and more broadly for mental flexibility and explorative thinking. The following five techniques are the most basic ways to stimulate abstract mindset and broader perspective on demand:

1. Why Restatements. Why restatements—continuously asking why you need to solve the problem or take some action—reliably lead to more abstract representations as they force you to focus on higher and higher goals.[1] The 5 Whys technique of problem solving is a well-known example of this approach traditionally used by organizations like Toyota and others. Also, asking about the broadest implications of the problem should do the similar trick. If your creative challenge concerns more some object rather than an action, you can think of higher categories to which your object belongs.[2] (For example, if you’re working on some smartwatch technology and want to stimulate abstract mindset, think of higher level categories to which it belongs—wireless handsets, portable devices, communication systems, and so on). Read more »

Why Abstract Representations Enhance Creative Thinking

The last post discussed the dual pathway to creativity, which explains that creative ideas emerge either as a result of detail-oriented thinking and persistence (which gives rises to original ideas within narrower categories) or as a result of cognitive flexibility and mental-set breaking. The flexibility pathway is very dependent on broad mental horizons and abstract processing. This post describes why abstract processing may help creative thinking and why it may hurt it; the next post will briefly describe the basic practical tools for increasing it.

Generally, the same thing (whether an object, an event, or a person) can be represented more or less abstractly. For example, you could think about eating an orange in more concrete terms, such as taking the fruit, peeling the skin and so on. Yet, you could also think about it more abstractly, for example, as taking care of your nutrition so you could live a healthy and satisfying life. How abstractly you think about something depends on many things, such as psychological distance or the abstractness of the language used to define a problem.

Research shows that more abstract representations normally enhance creative thinking. To illustrate why abstract representations are often helpful, consider the following classic insight problem of a prisoner in a tower:

A prisoner was attempting to escape from a tower. He found a rope in his cell that was half as long enough to permit him to reach the ground safely. He divided the rope in half, tied the two parts together, and escaped. How could he have done this?

To find the solution, you could develop a rather concrete representation of this problem, for example, by focusing on the length of the rope. Alternatively, you could represent it more abstractly, for example, as a problem of safely getting down by using the available materials. Read more »

Dual Pathway to Creativity and the Importance of Detail-Oriented Thinking

Dual pathway to creativity in a nutshell: Although creativity is traditionally equated with intuitive and associative thinking which capitalizes on cognitive flexibility and mental-set breaking, the dual pathway to creativity recognizes an alternative pathway based on detail-oriented and analytical thinking which leads to creative ideas within narrower categories.

Creativity in the popular understanding is often juxtaposed with rational and analytical thinking. This was neatly expressed by a French mathematician and theoretical physicist Henri Poincaré when he stated that “it is by logic that we prove, but by intuition that we discover.”

Psychological research traditionally has likewise considered creativity as nearly synonymous with intuitive and associative thinking. Analytical thinking is considered important for creativity only because of its role in critical evaluation and analysis of ideas, but its role is supposedly minimal in creative generation, the very process of producing ideas.

In reality, however, creative generation sometimes works better with deliberate and analytical as opposed to intuitive thinking, as could be seen from many creative ideas in science, business, and other non-artistic fields which were produced primarily through deliberate and detail-oriented thinking. And over the last decade, this fact is also slowly being recognized in creativity research. Read more »

Procrustean Problem-Solving Bias and the Law of Small Displays

The Procrustean Problem-Solving Bias

We often deal with complex problems by simply cutting off some elements of a problem so as to conveniently reduce its complexity. This tendency could be called the Procrustean problem-solving bias.

Procrustean Problem Solving Bias In Greek mythology, Procrustes was a bandit who forced people to fit his arbitrary-sized bed by either stretching them if they were too short or cutting off their legs if they were too tall. In problem solving, the Procrustean bias manifests itself in the cutting part: cutting down the elements of a complex problem to fit it, for example, into our limited working memory. Read more »

Psychological Distance & Construal Level Theory

We can mentally represent the same situation more concretely or more abstractly. Level of abstraction, called construal level, has diverse effects on our thinking, including creativity, problem solving, risk taking, analytic evaluations, forecasting of other people’s actions, self-control, decision-making, and other elements of creative and adaptive thinking. Higher level construals allow for more abstract reasoning and easier extraction of high-level information; accordingly, higher level construals, for example, can help with creativity but hurt with predictions.

One of the easiest ways to influence construal level is by manipulating psychological distance. This post explains what construal level is and what influences psychological distance; future posts will explore how psychological distance affects specific aspects of thinking and problem solving, such as creativity, decision making, and others. Read more »