A Coast Guardsman peers through a pair of binoculars while on lookout duty.

A Coast Guardsman peers through a pair of binoculars while on lookout duty. U.S. Coast Guard file photo

Human Nature Can Steer People Away from New Things – and that Can Blind Them to Novel Threats

Those who seek to cause harm are as capable of generating creative ideas as anyone else. Two psychologists and counterterrorism scholars suggest how not to overlook a new danger.

There’s a military aphorism that generals are always fighting the last war. It’s a natural human tendency to focus on the kinds of threats you’re used to while playing down the likelihood or importance of some new sort of attack.

Of course novel threats can crop up anytime and anywhere. An assassin killed former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe with an improvised firearm in a country largely unfamiliar with gun violence. Dozens of cases of Havana Syndrome, a health condition some have speculated is caused by directed energy or microwave weapons, remain unexplained. Unless you are a science fiction fan or obsess over spy novels, these kinds of attacks aren’t top of mind when anticipating what dangers are out there.

As psychologists and counterterrorism scholars, we’re interested in malevolent creativity. Novelty is not solely the purview of the “good guys” – those who seek to cause harm are as capable of generating creative ideas as everyone else.

So why do people tend to dismiss these types of novel threats, leaving themselves less protected? What social scientists call “the originality bias” provides insight into why it’s so easy to forget that adversaries may be developing new tactics in pursuit of their malevolent goals.

What makes a novel threat easy to miss

Although many people report a desire for new things and fresh ideas, studies find most are surprisingly resistant to novel thinking.

People often show a preference for the unoriginal. You can see it in the popularity of entertainment options like the ninth “Fast and Furious” movie or the latest Marvel Cinematic Universe offering. Gadgets are often designated by variant numbers – think iPhone 13 – emphasizing they’re an iteration of the familiar. And people tend to make mistakes when assessing the most novel ideas.

Such biases may have served humans well over the course of evolution, limiting the inclination to grab an unknown berry or trudge off into an ominous, freshly discovered cave. Although neutral or even helpful in many scenarios, this originality bias also has more worrisome implications if it means missing novel threats. Here’s how it can happen.

To start, novel ideas by definition are difficult for people to assess based on previous experience. A bullet, for example, causes a wound. But a novel weapon may not leave as clear an indicator of harm. The impact of novel ideas can be harder to see and so easier to dismiss.

Evaluating novel ideas is also more cognitively demanding. There’s a lot more to figure out around an emerging or even theoretical technology like a microwave weapon compared with a well-known explosive compound.

shadow with devil horns against pink background projected past a person
It can be hard to decipher the danger of something you haven’t encountered before. Klaus Vedfelt/DigitalVision via Getty Images

And because a novel threat is by definition unknown, no one is scanning the horizon for it specifically. Before the terrorist attacks on 9/11, for example, there were fewer security checkpoints. Before Abe’s assassination, most in his circle were not scanning for makeshift guns, since Japan has few firearms and makeshift guns were often dismissed as a viable threat.

There are also social or interpersonal reasons for ignoring or missing original ideas. Fresh ideas often threaten the status quo and may put some people at a disadvantage. Consider a security company that sells bulletproof glass. If a novel threat can travel through the glass, that company may be reluctant to tell others that their product is of limited use against it. People may prefer to set aside the risk from a novel threat to protect the current way of operating.

Finally, it can be uncomfortable or embarrassing to discuss novel ideas and your views of them. A researcher may be reluctant to write about Havana Syndrome because of a fear of losing credibility if their take on what’s going on turns out to be wrong. Being wrong can diminish your view of yourself as well as how others see you, and it’s more common with novel ideas precisely because less is known about them.

Seeing past the originality bias

For all these reasons, people are often less well defended against novel threats, even though such threats have the potential to do great harm. How can those who work in law enforcement and the broader homeland security enterprise guard against the originality bias while guarding against threats? Work in organizational psychology and design thinking offers a few potential avenues to support breaking natural tendencies toward the predictable.

  • Support a climate that seeks creative solutions.

  • Promote leadership that supports and encourages viewing things differently.

  • Seek diversity of expertise and a range of ways to frame problems.

  • Conduct after-action discussions when a novel threat was missed and make changes to address weaknesses.

These ideas are aimed in particular at organizations and people who focus on countering violent extremism. But they provide some guidance for anyone else who also wants to work on the cognitive blind spot created by the originality bias.

And remember, it’s important not to equate novelty with danger. New ideas may be boring and rightly dismissed. They can also be first steps toward amazing innovations that should be pursued. In many respects, failure to grapple with the originality bias can come at significant cost.

The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.