Why We Desire But Reject Creative Ideas

According to a new paper by researchers from Cornell, University of Pennsylvania, and the University of North Carolina, creative ideas make people uncomfortable. The paper, which is based on two studies from UPenn involving more than 200 people, is set to be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science (ungated version here).

From the abstract:

People often reject creative ideas even when espousing creativity as a desired goal. To explain this paradox, we propose that people can hold a bias against creativity that is not necessarily overt, and which is activated when people experience a motivation to reduce uncertainty. In two studies, we measure and manipulate uncertainty using different methods including: discrete uncertainty feelings, and an uncertainty reduction prime. The results of both studies demonstrated a negative bias toward creativity (relative to practicality) when participants experienced uncertainty. Furthermore, the bias against creativity interfered with participants’ ability to recognize a creative idea. These results reveal a concealed barrier that creative actors may face as they attempt to gain acceptance for their novel ideas.

The irony is that as a society, we’re constantly talking about how much we value creativity. And yet, the study implies that our minds are biased against it because of the very nature of its novelty. The authors point out that we often view novelty and practicality as inversely related. We generally value practical ideas because they’re familiar and proven, while the more novel an idea, the more uncertainty there exists about whether it’s practical, error-free, or even useful. There is also the social cost that comes with endorsing unproven novel ideas.

Going forward, perhaps it’s not that we need to get better at producing creative ideas, but at learning how to accept them. The authors note:

Revealing the existence and nature of a bias against creativity can help explain why people might reject creative ideas and stifle scientific advancements, even in the face of strong intentions to the contrary. … The field of creativity may need to shift its current focus from identifying how to generate more creative ideas to identify how to help innovative institutions recognize and accept creativity.

[HT: Eric M. Jones]


Risk and cost/benefit analyses should quiet the nay-sayers. If those tools are ignored for the sake of taking a creative approach they beg for disaster.

Peter Orlowicz

I think that's part of the problem, though; with an innovative, creative idea, the risks, costs and benefits are much more uncertain and difficult to ascertain before actually going through with the idea. Moreover, because of that uncertainty, a decisionmaker who doesn't want to take the risk of failure (regardless of the potential benefits) can almost always generate some hypothetical worst-case scenario which would make the costs outweigh the benefits.

fred garnett

We need to understand Epistemic Cognition, which isnt taught. Check out the PAH Continuum


"The irony is that as a society, we’re constantly talking about how much we value creativity."

We? Who exactly is "we" here? Far as I can tell, the creativity thing comes from a handful of educators, management consultants, and other such pundits, who've seized on it because selling the idea of a nebulous "creativity" is ever so much easier than teaching & fostering competence.

Mike B

This is why early adopters are their own special class of person. I know of few innovative new products or that didn't initially come with high costs, "teething problems" or both. Sometimes these are hidden by an initial string of failures that the public never becomes aware of. I think that embrace of new ideas must go hand in hand with an acceptance of failure (another quality espoused by those contributors to this blog). Trying new things, failing, and repeating the cycle can be a lot more frustrating than just sticking with the same old stuff.

Bruce H.

As usual, the Onion got there first: http://www.theonion.com/articles/apple-employee-fired-for-thinking-different,773/


Pushing back against creativity is natural - most of the time the creative idea is misguided and damaging because the person didn't bother to think it through all the way. For instance, the California state legislature could do with a lot less of their damaging creativity at coming up with new ways to destroy the state, and you could say the same thing about the proposition process.

Occasionally someone has a real improvement ('maybe we should stop relying on slavery'), then at that point you have the opposite problem.

I think this is a fundamental personal opposition axis - conservative vs progressive in the /basic/ sense, not the politically charged misuse of the terms. How much risk are you willing to take on somebody's half-baked but appealing idea?


From an anecdotal standpoint, I've seen this problem in action a number of times. The job descriptions asks for someone who is creative. Then, in the interview, the manager tell you how he/she is looking for someone who "thinks outside the box." You're hired. All is well.

Until you actually think outside the box. Ha!

The key is that when you do think creatively, it affects that status quo. Departments get comfortable doing things the same ol' way. When you come in with radical new ideas, it's upsetting.

Before long, you're told that you need to "follow procedures" and "the chain of command." After all, if six other people have to sign off on a good idea before it can be implemented, there's a chance not much will change.

Somehow, even though I sometimes broke the fine china, I was able to bring about dramatic performance in a number of instances. But it cost me something.

You would think that such things would bring promotion. It doesn't. At least not in my world. It does get a nice pat on the head, maybe even a bonus, but to move that sort of person into upper management? Horrors!

OK, part of that it probably just me rationalizing matters. But that's pretty much the way it worked out. The "safe" players move up. The creative ones don't. At least in many companies.

But as soon as you move on looking for greener pastures, an job opening ad will be placed in the newspapers, and they'll be looking for another "creative" person.



I'm a grad student in humanities at a top-tier university, and when I was applying and visiting, you can bet everyone seemed to love my "unique perspectives." When I got here and started using that "outside the box" thinking in classes, well, it didn't go over so well with some of my professors. I have actually been told to stick to what's presented for a while... and this is in the supposedly open-minded confines of academia. It's basically "Question everything... except my pet theories."

robyn ann goldstein

Dear Paul; Suggestion, Keep a diary with your ideas. Professors don't necessarily like thinking and creative students i.e., only the great ones do. I had a few. Trouble is, it took a while for a few to get it and that was after I left that school for another. My real mentor not only got it, he told everyone who was interested in knowing. Now that's progress- a prof. with integrity who stands up for their students. When you find a teacher like that, then sharing becomes a great way to learn even more. I had another professor who handed me a problem and then when I solved it, he used it and I got no credit at all. What would you call that? A crime? Perhaps. Deliberate? Maybe. Forgetfulness? Impossible. But it surely makes for a good mystery story.


This strikes me as a classic case of: "OMG, they needn't to run a study to figure that out??". For crying out loud, anyone who has worked in an environment where it's espoused that creativity is desired knows that really creative ideas are shunned. Only with time, data and (usually hardships) will these ideas take hold.


I sometimes see young writers discarding the usual structures associated with fiction and going for a more creative, unusual approach. I find this very often tiresome and impossible to read. The familiar old structures of prose let the writing fade into the background, making communication of the story easier. When writers abandon those and try truly original styles the reader has to really labour to get at the story.

Sometimes it can be worth it, like Anthony Burgess's amazing use of an invented street dialect in A Clockwork Orange, but usually I much prefer conventional writing styles combined with fascinating stories. So I certainly see why extreme creativity can be off-putting. It can take much more work to appreciate, and I often couldn't be bothered!

Perhaps the same is true for much contemporary art, which I mostly can't understand and often feel bored by. The old structures of art I'm familiar with don't apply there and I find it difficult to know what I'm meant to be experiencing.



If the researchers had actually taken ideas that were (somehow) known to be creative and effective (versus not so creative but comparably effective) and shown that people who say they value creativity actually react negatively to the former, then it would be a cool study. (And hard to do.)

But if you look at what they actually did, it all seems to me a lot less compelling than that.

They used the controversial "IAT" measure of implicit attitudes to show that people have less positive associations with the words "creative, inventive, original, and novel" than with the words "practical, functional, constructive, useful". I think that would be obvious to anyone who is widely read and has encountered the various contexts in which these words are used, and anyway, it is a highly indirect measure of how people react to actual creativity.

The second experiment looks even more indirect and contrived.

Another Psych Science study that sounds more interesting than it really is.


Enter your name...

This reminds me of what we've seen in the federal grants process. The grant agency declares that it wants "innovative" work. The winning applications often say something like, "This idea is innovative, because it was innovative when Dr Smith at Big Name successfully did it a couple of years ago."


This is pretty interesting but you have to understand you have just given validation to all the struggling film makers out there that think the reason they can't make it in hollywood is because "They just don't get me or my awesome concept" when in reality their ideas/personalities are not that good.

Majid Iqbal

So many fearless leaders come to my mind who at least twice year implore their teams to be creative and innovative, and then leave intact policies, structures and implicit biases against anything that will not lead to short-term revenue and profit with 90% certainty or more. But for good reason, explained well by this research. Tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty are not that widespread in the industrial enterprise (and I mean to include government).

I'm so glad this research was pursued. It validates the intuition behind a design platform my team is building to make the act of design more or less invisible or hidden across routine activities and tasks of an organization. Particularly for organizations that tend to produce massive amounts of antibodies against creative ideas and novel concepts, design is best perhaps by subterfuge. Not subversive. More subliminal.

The idea is to allow creative minds to make "little bets" and seed large programs and initiatives with ideas that can evolve into robust solutions, or die (affordable losses). Ironically, resistance to new and possibly good ideas often comes from those with the capabilities and resources to foster them.

So, what if an organization and its social structure are unaware of an idea until it is strong enough to survive in the open? That idea is distributed across the organization and therefore builds grass-roots as it grows. This what my team is pursuing. Emergent design, that is dynamic, dispersed and asynchronous.



I would have to read the whole paper on the study.
Measuring discomfort with novelty is not equivalent to measuring the tendency to reject creative ideas. Circumstances and what is at stake matter, I'm sure.
I agree with "eric." It is not always rational to accept creative ideas unless they solve a problem. How was the experiment set up and what were the conditions?
Again, without reading the entire paper, this says nothing that isn't common sense.


Romer's Rule The proposal first made by the American palaeontologist Alfred Sherwood Romer (1894–1973), that the effect of many important evolutionary changes is to enable organisms to continue in the same way of life, rather than to adapt to a new one. Similar to the Red Queen Effect - an evolutionary principle, first proposed in 1973 by L. Van Valen, that much of the evolution of a lineage consists simply of keeping up with environmental changes (mainly tracking a deteriorating environment), rather than occupying or adapting to new environments. The name is derived from the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll'sThrough the Looking-Glass, who had to run as fast as she could just to stay in the same place.