Battling Our Same-Different Instinct:
How to Overcome its Harmful Side-Effects
Nature has given us many helpful instincts that are intended to keep us safe and healthy. When we touch something that could burn us, we instinctively pull our hand away. When we feel a mosquito biting us, we instinctively swat it. Perhaps most famously, we were given the flight or fight instinct whereby in the face of danger, we choose one of those to reactions without conscious thought.
Another somewhat less famous is our instinct for analogy. We instinctively categorize everything we see as either like something we have seen before or not. The best theory (because we can’t know for sure) is that this instinct is there to protect us from anomalous things, for example from harmful things we may ingest. When our ancestors saw a plant or vegetable or fruit that was very similar to ones they had seen before and safely ingested, their instinct told them that this one was safe too. If not, be safe and take a pass.
A modern example of this phenomenon is the Segway, the one-time hot-as-a-pistol, next brilliant forthcoming innovation, funded by hundreds of millions in venture capital, code-named Ginger, and brought to the world by superstar inventor Dean Kaman. The technology was magnificently sophisticated and actually worked as advertised. Nonetheless, Segway ceased production on July 15, 2020 having failed utterly and abjectly in its 20-year journey to the ashbin of history.
The problem was that the Segway analogizes to absolutely nothing at all. It is a little wheeled platform, on which you stand upright, largely motionless while moving forward. You didn’t sit as in a car, or peddle as on a bicycle, or steer as with a motorcycle. It was unique — and for the brain, that is simply not a good thing. Think of the last time you saw a rare Segway in use and recall your reaction. For me, it was at an airport and a police officer was patrolling the arrivals level on a Segway. She looked totally weird and laughably geeky on the contraption, and I bet your reaction is the same every time. Our mind simply doesn’t like it because it doesn’t know to what other thing in our mental repertoire to compare it.
It isn’t a horseless carriage — i.e., a carriage that has a motor in the front rather than a horse. It isn’t a motorcycle — a bicycle with an engine for propulsion. Or a snowboard — a skateboard for the snow. Or a now-ubiquitous motorized scooter, which looks just like, well, a scooter. Those had powerful positive analogies that enabled the brain to comprehend and categorize this new-but-not-so-new item. Our instincts did not send a ‘watch out, I am uncomfortable’ signal, but rather a ‘yup, got it, we’re OK here’ vibe. That smoothed the adoption processes rather than put roadblocks in their paths.
The Cost of Our Instinct
Like the rest of our safety driven instincts, this analogy instinct has a value, but it has a cost too, especially in the modern world in which we have other ways of ascertaining the safety of food stuffs. The problem, as with fight or flight, is that it pushes us instinctively to extremes: this is the same, or this is different. And the vast majority of the time, it is somewhere in between. And our instinct causes us to overlook that vast territory to our detriment.
For decades, Reuters and Thomson Financial duked it out with Bloomberg for the lucrative global market of leasing desktop terminals that provide live data-feeds for the world’s financial traders, who need the live data to figure out what, how and when to trade. Thomson and Reuters even merged in 2008 order to better compete with Bloomberg by increasing their scale and then sinking huge investments into making its terminals and feeds as high quality and functional as Bloomberg’s. Yet Thomson Reuters was never been able to carve into the lopsided share lead of Bloomberg and eventually threw in the towel by selling a majority stake in the business to Blackstone, which in due course sold the business to the London Stock Exchange.
Why did the attempt to compete with Bloomberg come up so short? Bloomberg really was in a different business — the communications business. Its chat function enabled thousands of traders to communicate with each other about their trading while they traded. It wasn’t about the data feeds; it was about the social network. Bloomberg was and continues to be just plain different, even though from a cursory glance, it looked the same.
During the 1990’s, Crest lost its long-held market share leadership in toothpaste to rival Colgate. During that period, Crest focused on the difference between two segments of consumers. One segment — Crest’s segment — focused on mouth health, that is protecting against cavities and the dreaded gingivitis referred to in scary terms in advertising copy. The other segment focused on aesthetics — bright, white teeth. To the folks working on the Crest business at the time, it was all about the difference: was a consumer a serious mouth health aficionado or a flighty aesthetics person? However, the folks at eternal rival Colgate came to the conclusion they weren’t so different and in fact virtually all consumers wanted mouth health and aesthetics and introduced a product that addressed both aspects: Colgate Total. That brilliant product knocked Crest off the toothpaste pedestal and left the Crest folks dazed because they had simply never thought of consumers as being that similar.
For decades, I have watched this phenomenon of the exaggeration of both similarity (Thomson Reuters versus Bloomberg) and difference (Crest versus Colgate) play out. When we decide a thing is analogous, we are inclined to slip into treating it as ‘the same.’ repeatedly to the detriment of company performance. But if a phenomenon doesn’t fit handily into the ‘same’ category, it tends to get pushed to the absolute far extreme, to ‘different.’ It gets tossed completely out of the ‘same’ category and thrown into a ‘different’ category to be analogized to something else entirely — those aesthetics-oriented toothpaste consumers are like fad dieters; they are superficial and don’t pay attention to fundamentals like proactive health.
The problem, of course, is that there are differences in sameness and sameness in differences. We get into big trouble the moment we allow our instincts to secretly convince us that a phenomenon is entirely the same or entirely different.
Inoculating against the Downsides of Analogy
Until someone figures out a way to regulate our instinct — and I don’t see that happening anytime soon — we are going to have to accept that it will shove into the center of our consciousness an evaluation of either ‘this is the same’ or ‘this is different.’ Once that reaction hits our consciousness, we have the power to do something useful.
Dealing with the Sameness Message
If our subconscious sends us the message ‘this is the same as that,’ it will provide us very quickly and seamlessly everything that is the same about the thing on which it is focusing. We don’t need help on that front. But we need to do hard conscious work on the differences. It is tremendously important to work through the list of what about the thing in question is different. Line them up against the things that the mind has spewed out instantly as ‘the same.’
In what ways is this competitor really just not like us? Don’t stop until you have a few ways that it is fundamentally different. Does it actually serve needs in a fundamentally different way like Southwest Airlines? Does it serve an aspect of the customer’s needs that actually we don’t provide like Four Seasons? Does it produce the product in the same way and sell it to the same customers but get it to the customer in a different way like Avon?
In what way is this customer fundamentally different from other customers? Though it may buy the same thing the same way, are they different in terms of the experience they want? Do discount outlet shoppers actually want a different shopping experience like Costco shoppers? Don’t stop until you have something different.
Is this employee fundamentally different than other employees? Even though this employee has the same job at the same pay as numerous other employees, is this one meaningfully different because she has worked for only two companies in her 30-year career? Is this employee different because he is a single parent?
Perhaps the easiest sameness trap in which to fall is to see the present and future environment in which the company operates as the same as the past. Because the world often changes very slowly, this appears to be a safe assumption — no individual slice of time is very different from the prior slice. It is just like when friends comment on the growth in your daughter and you hadn’t noticed because you see her every day. So, it is important to ask, in the sea of sameness, what made last week or month different than all the previous months?
Dealing with the Difference Message
In parallel fashion, if our subconscious sends us the message ‘this is the different than that,’ it will provide us very quickly and effortlessly everything that is different about the thing on which it is focusing. Hence, we need to do hard conscious work on the sameness; to line up aspects of sameness to go with the differences that our mind has automatically spewed out.
Even if this competitor looks different and seems to sell a different product/service, how might it actually meet the same need as us? Do video gaming competitors actually serve the same need for entertainment as us if we are a movie production company? Even if the competitor uses an entirely different process, it is actually producing a very similar product/service? Is Nucor, in fact, as real a steel company as we are? Even if it gets to the customer in a very different way, does Amway really deliver similar value to P&G?
Even if two sets of customers appear different at first blush, in what ways are they actually quite similar? Do Southwest Airlines customers actually want mostly the same as American/United/Delta customers — a safe, convenient, on-time flying experience? Do Costco customers actually want quality, uniqueness and value nearly as much and in similar fashion to Nordstrom customers? Do Amazon customers think nearly the same about buying stuff as Walmart customers?
Despite seeming very different on the surface, do Millennials actually want many of the same elements of a relationship with their employer as Baby Boomers? Are blue-collar workers as different from white-collar workers as they are assumed to be at first blush? Might they share deep similarities that need to be considered?
While everything about the environment might be screaming ‘paradigm shift’ or the ‘new normal’ or ‘the end of an era,’ what aspects of it might be remarkably consistent with the past? Might bricks coexist with clicks, localization with globalization, narrowcast with broadcast? What is the sameness to go along with all the difference?
It is not possible to claim with certainty that had Thomson Reuters paid close attention to the differences with Bloomberg and P&G to the sameness of customer segments while competing with Colgate that their competitive outcomes would have been meaningfully superior. But it is hard to imagine that the dollars would have been invested in the pattern that they were. And while nothing about the future can be certain and competition is never entirely predictable, making a conscious effort to balance the mind’s automatic impulse to race to the extreme of ‘same’ or ‘different’ gives the greatest wealth of insight and information on which to build more robust decisions.