Behavioral Limits on Innovation

Posted: 13 Jun 2013

See all articles by Sarah F. Brosnan

Sarah F. Brosnan

Georgia State University - Department of Psychology

Date Written: May 22, 2013


Humans are not the only species that innovate. Starting with Wolfgang Köhler’s demonstration of chimpanzee innovation in the realm of tool use, tool use innovations have been seen in other apes as well as other species (e.g., corvids). A key question, then, is why we don’t see more innovation in non-human species. Recent studies have uncovered three tendencies that limit innovation: conservatism (the disinclination to explore/adopt new possibilities or opportunities; Marshall-Pescini & Whiten, 2008; Price, Lambeth, Schapiro, & Whiten, 2013), conformity (the tendency to do what everyone else in your group does; Hopper, Schapiro, Lambeth, & Brosnan, 2011), and functional fixedness (the disinclination to use familiar objects in novel ways; Hanus, Mendes, Tennie, & Call, 2011).

While these behaviors undoubtedly limit innovation by reducing exploration and experimentation, there is likely strong selective pressure for these behaviors/psychologies because they provide benefits in many situations. Conservatism in foods, for instance, allows individuals to avoid dangerous or poisonous food items, as the risk of eating something poisonous is greater than the benefit of finding a new food source. Conformity both 1) allows individuals to avoid dangerous situations that might not be readily apparent without risky individual exploration and 2) emphasizes new resources or approaches to solve problems that are safe and that otherwise might not have recognized. Thus there are strong evolutionary pressures to develop these traits. From the perspective of innovation, however, they are a problem. At the most basic level, the fact that this has an evolutionary foundation means that it may be an engrained aspect of human psychology that will require extra effort to change. More specifically, the fact that these traits discourage exploration and experimentation leave people “stuck” in the same way of doing things and disinclined to either look for new solutions or accept them. Secondarily, this leads to a resistance to accept new technologies or ideas even when they could objectively benefit them.

Considering this, when might innovation be most likely to occur? First, innovation may occur when there is no other option. For instance, in a token exchange task, chimpanzees conform to the group’s choice of tokens even when the non-conformist option brings them a preferred reward (Hopper, et al., 2011). The only exception to this is subordinate chimpanzees in the control group, in which the conformist option brings the preferred reward. In this case, subordinates were likely to revert to the non-conformist option because the dominants denied them access to the conformist token. Second, innovation may occur when the penalty for conformity/conservatism/etc is too high, not just in terms of the objective losses for not adopting a new technology or idea, but if there are additional costs to conformity. Finally, innovation may be more common among subordinates or those at the bottom of the hierarchy, both because of these costs and due to the disincentives to innovate from the dominants. Considering an example of the latter, Kodak lost market value after resisting the change from optical to digital technology. Kodak was the dominant optical technology, and may have failed to believe that the transition would be so complete, have been averse to the high cost of transition, feared the loss of expertise from entering a new arena, etc. Finally, innovation is undoubtedly linked to loss aversion or endowment effects, both of which have been demonstrated in non-human primates (Brosnan et al., 2007; Brosnan, Jones, Gardner, Lambeth, & Schapiro, 2012; Chen, Lakshminarayanan, & Santos, 2006; Drayton, Brosnan, Carrigan, & Stoinski, in press; Flemming, Jones, Stoinski, Mayo, & Brosnan, 2012; Jones & Brosnan, 2008; Lakshminarayanan, Chen, & Santos, 2008) and are likely present in other species. However there are likely selective pressures in favor of conformity and conservatism above and beyond loss aversion. Literature Cited:

Brosnan, S. F., Jones, O., Mareno, M. C., Richardson, A. S., Shapiro, S., & Lambeth, S. (2007). Endowment Effects in Chimpanzees. Current Biology.

Brosnan, S. F., Jones, O. D., Gardner, M., Lambeth, S. P., & Schapiro, S. J. (2012). Evolution and the expression of biases: situational value changes the endowment effect in chimpanzees. Evolution & Human Behavior. doi: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2011.11.009

Chen, M. K., Lakshminarayanan, V., & Santos, L. R. (2006). How basic are behavioral biases? Evidence from capuchin monkey trading behavior. Journal of Political Economy, 114(3), 517-537.

Drayton, L., Brosnan, S. F., Carrigan, J., & Stoinski, T. S. (in press). Endowment effects in gorillas (Gorilla gorilla). Journal of Comparative Psychology.

Flemming, T. E., Jones, O. D., Stoinski, T. S., Mayo, L., & Brosnan, S. F. (2012). Endowment effects in orangutans. International Journal of Comparative Psychology, 25, 285-298.

Hanus, D., Mendes, N., Tennie, C., & Call, J. (2011). Comparing the performances of apes (Gorilla gorilla, Pan troglodytes, Pongo pygmaeus) and human children (Homo sapiens) in the floating peanut task. PLOS ONE, 6(6), e19555.

Hopper, L. M., Schapiro, S. J., Lambeth, S. P., & Brosnan, S. F. (2011). Chimpanzees' socially maintained food preferences indicate both conservatism and conformity. Animal Behavior, 81, 1195-1202.

Jones, O. D., & Brosnan, S. F. (2008). Law, Biology & Property: A new theory of the endowment effect. William and Mary Law Review, 49, 1935-1990.

Lakshminarayanan, V., Chen, M. K., & Santos, L. R. (2008). Endowment effect in capuchin monkeys. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B, 363, 3837-3844. doi: doi:10.1098/rstb.2008.0149

Marshall-Pescini, S., & Whiten, A. (2008). Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and the question of cumulative culture: an experimental approach. Animal Cognition, 11, 449-456.

Price, E., Lambeth, S., Schapiro, S., & Whiten, A. (2013). A potent effect of observational learning on chimpanzee tool construction. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B, 276.

Suggested Citation

Brosnan, Sarah F., Behavioral Limits on Innovation (May 22, 2013). Available at SSRN:

Sarah F. Brosnan (Contact Author)

Georgia State University - Department of Psychology ( email )

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