Why Great Ideas Are Often Rejected

Why Great Ideas Are Often Rejected

There is evidence to support the claim that people carry an inherent bias against creativity.

Many of us have received criticism or an unfavourable response with regards to a new idea that we have put forward and experts are speculating that this might be because of a natural preference towards structure and stability with the majority of people placing trust in the established ways of thinking.

License: Creative Commons

Igor Stravinsky debuted arguably his best work, The Rite of Spring ballet to an audience in Paris on the 29th of May 1939. Stravinsky had written internationally inharmonic notes arranged around pagan themes and this concept was very different to the popular, graceful ballets of the time which were usually centred on traditional music and elegant styles. Within a few minutes of the show’s opening spectator began to boo the performers.

The supporters of the show assembled against the unhappy members in the audience and it wasn’t long before a riot broke out in the stalls. The police were forced to intervene and calm the angry mob before the first intermission! During the second half of the ballet the riots broke out again. Stravinsky was astonished by the reaction of the audience and he escaped the theatre before the shows end.

These days The Rite of Spring is viewed favorably, it is considered as revolutionary and is revered for its musical composition and style. Stravinsky was initially surprised by the reaction to his ballet after years of crafting and improving his piece but he has been vindicated in the passage of time.

These types of reactions can be confusing to creative people leaving them wondering what they might have done wrong and why their ideas are not understood. Luckily, recent research in the field of psychology is beginning to explain some the mystery surrounding why our brains accept and reject creative ideas

Creativity must also be novel

For projects to be truly creative they should differ from the norm in some way. This departure from what is known makes many of us uncomfortable. This is because human beings have a desire for certainty and structure and when these tried and tested ways are challenged a bias opposed to creativity results.

There were two studies which shed light on this bias by researchers from Cornell, Penn and the University of North Carolina. Jennifer Mueller from Penn led the first team of researchers and she studied people’s perception of creative ideas when faced with uncertainty. Two groups were created in the first study with one group facing a degree of uncertainty because they were told that they would be eligible for additional payment based on a random lottery

The first test given to the participants presented pairs of words on a computer and asked them to select the pairing that they favored. In the test segments, subjects would choose a preference for pairings such as “novel vomit” or “useful peace.” The test is known as an “Implicit Associations Test” and it uses the speed of the subjects’ reaction time to measure the strength of their mental associations.

The second test involved measuring the participant’s explicit perceptions of creativity by asking them to use a seven point scale. The scale was arranged from strongly negative to strongly positive. On calculating the results of this test researchers found that the baseline group who were not given the information that they might receive extra compensation from the lottery held both implicit and explicit associations between creativity and practicality.

The uncertainty group differed to this group in that its members held explicitly positive association between the creativity and practicality but implicitly their minds were able to separate creative from practical. In plain terms they were found to have an implicit bias against creativity relative to usefulness.

Uncertainty is provoked by novelty

Society has a history of rejecting cutting edge ideas and technologies. The theory that people have an inherent bias against creativity could explain this in some ways.

The research team was interested in studying this thesis so they returned to the lab and studied a new team of people and their ability to judge creative product ideas. The teams were divided into those with a high or low tolerance for uncertainty.

If this bias is present in most people during periods of uncertainty, then it could well explain why society has a history of rejecting its greatest innovations. To test this thesis, the research team returned to the lab and this time studied a new group of participants’ ability to judge a creative product idea. The participants were again divided into two groups – this time into groups with a high tolerance or a low tolerance for uncertainty.

The two groups were primed by being asked to write essays, the essay subject for the high tolerance group was to write supporting the idea that multiple solutions existed for every problem.  The low tolerance group were asked to write about this from the opposite point of view. Both of the groups participants were then given the same implicit and explicit associations tests and then asked to score a creative idea for a new product.

This project being a running shoe with the ability to adjust its fabric thickness, as a mechanism of cooling the foot in hot conditions. As illustrated by the first study the second study showed that the low uncertainty tolerance group demonstrated the same implicit bias against creativity and the participants were more likely to score the running shoe idea poorly.

As a result of these studies we understand that people hold a slight bias against creative ideas when there is uncertainty in a situation. This cannot be explained as people having a preference for normality or an inclination to choose that which is familiar to them. The results of this study do have important implications for those of us wishing to “sell” our own creative ideas.

When we are pitching these concepts it would be useful for us to recognise that our ideas might not be as repellent to the audience as we suspect and that in fact the uncertainty felt by the audience may be playing a large part in them failing to perceive an idea as truly innovative and advantageous.

There are techniques that we can use to ensure that our pitches are well received. We can reaffirm the known facts of projects in the minds of the managers and clients before we begin to launch our ideas, this will prime the audience to be more accepting of your ideas when you begin.

Also if we can link together the new ideas with the ideas and rationale of previous successful projects or similar assignments then we can increase the chances of our concepts being accepted and supported. The final technique that you can apply involves beginning your pitch with a series of remarks that the audience know to be true and will agree with making the idea more familiar and logical. This will counter the bias against creativity replacing it with the powerful bias that your audience has towards their own ideas.

About the author: Serge is a serial entrepreneur merging his two passion of scientific curiosity and creative expression. Serge is the founder of Edictive a web film software suite.



  1. […] There is evidence to support the claim that people carry an inherent bias against creativity.  […]

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