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Big Ideas

Why Great Ideas Get Rejected

Everybody says they want more creativity, but do they really? An inherent bias against uncertainty may be at the core of our fear of new ideas.

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?

Comments (59)
  • Jay

    This is a good post and actionable. Very good job.

    One comment. It appears that the brain likes novelty but should be presented in a piecemeal approach so it can process it and make sense of it before taking more.

  • SmilaZ

    But how does one actually find investment for making things happen!? My idea is a business idea involves fine unique parasol fashion-designs and a that having another side of standard parasols for events, spa hotels etc., festivals, big labels like Zara etc. (It is a special kind of personal parasol that everyone seems to want to know where they can buy)

  • CoCreatr

    Good points, David. On the focus of resistance, I believe it is indeed uncertainty that comes with the prospect of change. Part of the emotional impact is change promises to make you feel beginner, helpless, or even victim. Only those who drive change might have some certainty about what is going to happen. And those who trust the changemaker are fine along for the ride or with helping. Analogy: If the driver is untrained or uncertain, the passengers along for the ride may resort to pressing the floorboard in search of brakes. If uncertainty is seen as going too far beyond the comfort zone, people bail out. One of the ways to accelerate change, the subjective safety of, could be to educate the changemakers in a kind of learning lab. They pass the test when inside the safe game space people stay on board and support the change. Then competent changemakers would encounter much less resistance to raise the barn or the collaboratory.

  • davidburkus

    Love the floorboard analogy. I’m probably guilty of doing that far too often. Thanks!

  • davidburkus

    Jay, good distinction. The bias against creativity isn’t so much an ever-lasting bias against novelty, just against too much too fast.

  • Danilo Sierra

    “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.” Like artist Tom Sachs said: Creativity is the enemy of innovation. Not all ideas that are creative are good, nor innovative in themselves.

    My only concern regarding this article is the fact that it only applies to ideas that are good in fact, in reality not everything depends on the pitch. I love how the article mentions often the need of knowing the target’s needs. I have heard so many start-up ideas here in Berlin that it is hard to not sound pretentious when thinking “this is not a good idea”.

  • 417 Marketing

    I’ve been in the business with for years now.. and of course, there was this time that a design of mine got rejected by a client. After a thorough briefing, it turned out that it was the client’s unstable preferences that caused the design to be rejected. It’s kind of normal in this type of businesses. You just have to be more patient in doing revisions. 🙂

  • 360 Degrees

    I’ve found out, for the past 16 years designing websites, that it helps if you put some limitations to clients’ choices, e.g. telling them: you only have three choices to select from. While this may sound not customer-centric, it actually helps everyone. For instance, I once had a dentist office whom I hadn’t given a limit. After 9 different design comps, they went back to the first version I had designed for them – with some minor changes.

  • Nestor

    Excellent article. I’ve found that many creatives treat uncertainties as part of the excitement at bringing an idea to life but, as I’ve experienced in the past, this can cause problems.

    Incidentally (and I certainly don’t mean to sound snarky), Stravinsky didn’t spent years fine-tuning his score before its premiere. Early sketches for the work are dated around 1911 and the final piece completed approximately three months before the first performance.

  • Chris

    Thanks for a thoughtful article based on data…

    And for the flip side: Why do we defend stupid ideas?

  • Joffre (J.D.) Meyer

    Finding the sustainability in composition theories of Derek Owens (St. John’s University) helped me vindicate the model essay choices in my Developmental English/Writing textbook. Dr. Owens urges instructors to let kids write about their neighborhood and career goals. I add, “Give Regional a Chance.”

  • Elle

    Yes. I have an innovative and disruptive idea. But some mentors don’t even have knowledge in the field, not to mention to digest something they haven’t seen yet…

    That is how I also learned why people get more comfortable with ordinary things they are more familiar with.

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