As humans, we like to associate because our memory uses association to function. This mental shortcut helps us operate more efficiently, but it can be influenced by conditioning. Conditioning comes in two flavors: classical and operant. Classical conditioning is repeated simultaneous exposure to a potent stimuli (like food) and a neutral stimuli (like a ringing bell). The two previously unconnected stimuli quickly become linked in associative memory and elicit an automatic physiological response. Think Pavlov’s dog. Operant conditioning is controlled through rewards and punishments. Think teaching a mouse to navigate a maze using food rewards.

Because associate memory is weaved tightly into how you think, it has a strong influence over your decision making. If you don’t train yourself to acknowledge association bias and conditioning, it could cause you to make bad decisions. Let’s consider some specific examples.

Past success

You and your team make a bold decision to create a unique new product. It’s a smashing success. A few years later, your team comes up with another new product idea, and the similarity to the smashing success is uncanny. Everyone quickly commits, substantial time and money is invested, and the product is launched. This time the product fails miserably. When the new product reminded you of the smashing success, your associative memory immediately went to work. The new product gained instant (but undeserved) credibility.

This new idea really reminds me of our top selling product, so we should make sure we avoid association bias when considering its chances of success.


You smartly study your two biggest competitors, who together control 80% of the market. Over time, you start to associate their success with their decisions. After all, they must know what they’re doing right? You soon find yourself copying their features, their product marketing, and their website design.

The new feature they launched looks interesting, but we should take a close look at how it fits with our overall product strategy before rushing to copy it.


A company pitching to investors or potential acquirers compares themselves to a well-known successful business in an effort to trigger a positive association. “We’re like Amazon for pets!” Why does this work so well? New investment ideas can be complex and overwhelming, so when an easy associative shortcut is dangled in front of us, we tend to grab it.

They do look like YouTube for video games, but we should be careful not to overfit that analogy during our analysis.


Hiring is another overwhelming and intimidating mental process. It involves evaluating a variety of disconnected factors and making some educated guesses. Some mistakes have usually been made in the past. In an effort to resolve the strain, we tend to fall back on something associatively comforting, like a great school or a well-known company. A good antidote — develop a weighted scoring system for candidates before you start the hiring process.

She went to Harvard. We should be careful not to overweight her education when comparing her to the other finalists.