Still from Basil Twist's "The Rite of Spring."

Why Great Ideas Get Rejected

Have you ever debuted an exciting new idea to the world only to receive a lukewarm or even highly critical response? Well, get used to it. Mounting evidence shows that we all possess an inherent bias against creativity. The good news is there’s something we can do about it.

On May 29, 1913 in Paris, Igor Stravinsky debuted perhaps his greatest work, The Rite of Spring ballet. Up until that point, most ballets were graceful and elegant, full of traditional music. Rite was different. Stravinsky had written intentionally inharmonic notes and arranged around pagan themes.

Within minutes of the show’s start, the audience began to boo the performers. Supporters rallied against the discontented audience members, and the show quickly degenerated into an all-out riot. Before the first intermission arrived, police had to intervene to calm the raging crowd. During the second half of the performance, riots broke out again. Surprised by the reaction, Stravinsky fled the theater before the show even ended.

Of course, history would vindicate Stravinsky. The Rite of Spring is now regarded as a milestone in the history of ballet and musical composition. Yet, even this legendary idea was initially rejected, which likely came as quite a shock to Stravinsky after he spent years crafting and refining the piece.

Similar rejections can leave us wondering what we did wrong or why others just couldn’t appreciate our creative idea. Fortunately, recent research in human psychology is finally shedding some light on how our brains accept (or reject) new ideas.

Creativity Requires an Element of Novelty.

For a work to be truly creative, it has to depart from the status quo at some point. That departure makes many people uncomfortable. Despite our oft-stated desire for more creativity, we also hold a stronger desire for certainty and structure. When that certainty is challenged, a bias against creativity develops.

This bias was first discovered in two studies by researchers from Cornell, Penn and the University of North Carolina. The research team, led by Penn’s Jennifer Mueller, studied our perceptions about creative ideas when faced with uncertainty. In the first study, the team divided participants into two groups and created a small level of uncertainty in one group, telling them they would be eligible for additional payment based on a random lottery.

For a work to be truly creative, it has to depart from the status quo at some point. That departure makes many people uncomfortable.

The participants were then given a series of tests. The first test presented pairs of words on a computer to the participants and asked them to select their preferred pairing. The pairings shown always came from two groups: creative versus practical (novel, original, functional, useful) or good versus bad (sunshine, peace, ugly, vomit). In each round, participants would chose their preference between pairs like “novel vomit” or “useful peace.” The test, known as an “Implicit Associations Test” uses the speed of participants’ reaction time to measure the strength of their mental associations.

The second test was more overt; it measured participants’ explicit perceptions of creativity by asking them to rate their attitudes toward creativity and practicality on a seven-point scale (from strongly negative to strongly positive). When the researchers calculated the results from both groups, they found that the baseline group (the one given no chance at extra compensation) held both implicit and explicit associations between creativity and practicality. The uncertainty group, however, was different. This group held an explicitly positive association between the two, but implicitly their minds separated creative from practical. In other words, they had an implicit bias against creativity relative to usefulness.

Novelty Provokes 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 high tolerance group was primed by being asked to write an essay supporting the idea that multiple solutions existed for every problem. The low tolerance group was primed by writing an essay arguing the opposite. Both groups were given the same implicit and explicit associations tests and then asked to rate a creative idea for a new product, a running shoe that automatically adjusted its fabric thickness to cool the foot in hot conditions. As anticipated by the first study, the low uncertainty tolerance group showed the same implicit bias against creativity and was more likely to rate the running shoe idea poorly.

Mueller’s results have powerful implications as we think about how to “sell” our own ideas. We now know that regardless of how open-minded people are, or claim to be, they experience a subtle bias against creative ideas when faced with uncertain situations. This isn’t merely a preference for the familiar or a desire to maintain the status quo. Most of us sincerely claim that we want the positive changes creativity provides. What the bias affects is our ability to recognize the creative ideas that we claim we desire. Thus, when you’re pitching your creative idea, it may not be the idea itself that is being rejected. The more likely culprit could be the uncertainty your audience is feeling, which in turn is overriding their ability to recognize the idea as truly novel and useful.

Regardless of how open-minded people are, they experience a subtle bias against creative ideas when faced with uncertain situations.

If the implicit bias against creativity is triggered by uncertainty, then crafting your pitch to maximize certainty should improve the odds of the idea being accepted. You can do this in a variety of ways. Reaffirming what the client or your manager knows is true about their project should prime them to be more accepting of novel ideas. Connecting the idea to more familiar ideas, such as previous successful projects or similar works, will also increase the odds that your idea will be seen as practical and desirable. Lastly, try leading clients toward your idea with a series of statements they agree with and then pitching your idea as if it’s theirs. Thus, counteracting the bias against creativity with an even more powerful bias – the bias for our own ideas!


Have Your Ideas Been Rejected?

Have you had great ideas shot down?

Do you think that minimizing uncertainty could help your idea succeed next time?

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David Burkus

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David Burkus is assistant professor of management at the College of Business at Oral Roberts University, where he teaches courses on creativity, entrepreneurship, and organizational behavior. He is the author of The Myths of Creativity: The Truth About How Innovative Companies and People Generate Great Ideas.
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