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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)
  • Daryll Tan

    Interesting findings. Have had many creative ideas shot down or put aside as a reference of maybe someday we’ll carry it out. It’s spot on when we think about it, people are fearful of the uncertainty and if we fail to answer their uncertainties and fears, we fail to execute a great idea. I believe it takes a long cultivated relationship between you and your clients too to pull something out their comfort zone.

  • Diane Cook-Tench

    I’ve successfully sold creative ideas by taking careful notes when being briefed by a client. When I present the creative work, I mention these client’s comments and link them to how they led us to one idea – that led to another thought – that led to the work I’m presenting. The client is nodding yes, yes, yes before the work is shown. They see their role in its creation and are predisposed to “buy” it.
    Once when I tried to be taken off an account, I was told that I couldn’t. The client had said that I listen so well that they didn’t want to lose me. This technique leads to more than just the sale of creative ideas.

  • davidburkus

    Diane, such as great method for pitching the idea AND getting a long-term client because they rely on your to know so much. Great job. Thank you for sharing it.

  • davidburkus

    The thing about “someday” is that it’s always even the future – a safe way to deflect an uncertain idea. I think you’re right about the relationship. We’re more likely to take the risk if it’s someone with a track record of success. Thanks.

  • Steve Hogan

    Great article David.

    Taking your client on a journey whilst recognising this inherent bias against creative thinking is the way to ensure not only your change is effected but it is sustainable. Unless the owner of the organisation is comfortable with the change it will not last, undoing all your work in one fell swoop.

  • davidburkus

    Steve, I couldn’t agree more. I think this is why organizations are so famous for “flavor of the month” change programs. They never address the psychological comfort. Thanks for the comment.

  • Alvin Martinez

    When designers or design agencies do not have direct access to the key client (as in the case of being hired by a marketing firm as a contractor or working for a organization with many levels to the top) then it increases the chances of good ideas being rejected unless that middle-person can effectively communicate and present the thinking and rationale behind the idea. That is why I have always been an advocate of designers having access to the final decision-makers (or close to them) as much as possible or at critical points in the development process.

  • Duane Jones

    I agree Alvin. It’s hard to know exactly what the middle person is saying once they are with the client. I’ve also experienced situations where I wasn’t able to sell the middle person on an idea but the middle person misunderstood what the client ultimately needed.

  • Yehoshua Ya'acov

    The objective reasoning of an uncertainty bias is sound, although it omits the subjective element, of the huamn jealousy bias, that is as well AGAINST creativity. Yehoshua Yaacov as the originator of the Integration of Labor innovation, has experienced this, as his work(s) NOW REPLACES the old division of labor, imdustrial model and methods. Thanks AGAIN, yy

  • Ashley Carter

    All of the wildly helpful books and blogs I’ve read, such as this one, over the past few months has advised me to do the very thing you’ve just said. It really does work wonders. I’ve just recently undertaken a branding project with my first client, a baby organization as I like to call them who was looking for visual identity. I took extensive notes during in person meetings and online correspondence and used their exact words (or the specific adjectives they wanted associated with the project) to sell my idea. Needless to say, having these key words in mind resulted in a happy designer (me) and very, very happy clients. Thanks for the tip!

  • Ashley Carter

    I feel as though I am struggling with this some working in an environment where I deliver concepts to a ‘mid-level’ person who then corresponds with the ‘high-level’ person. Even if I’ve hit the nail on the head as far as the design brief is concerned, I still end up going back and forth, coming up with new concepts that ultimately, in my opinion, seem diluted and fall short of the original goal.

  • Diane Cook-Tench

    I actually was so impressed with your article, I wrote a full blog post about it, adding more of my thoughts on techniques I’ve used to make clients feel more comfortable. You’ll find yourself and my ideas at http://cooktench.wordpress.com

  • davidburkus

    Great point. The idea has to go through a “hierarchy of no” and at each level you lose the ability to influence the final decision maker. That has a lot of potential for a follow-up article. I’ll start doing some research. Thanks for bringing it up.

  • Admin

    Creative ideas are certainly difficult to sell, and there’s even a term for the entire theory surrounding ideas that are ahead of their time. Have you done much research into the MAYA principle? There’s a great article on UX Booth by Jim O’Neill – http://www.uxbooth.com/blog/de… It’s interesting stuff.

  • Claudia Roiko Dunitz

    Can you add a Pin it button to your articles? For some reason, your images are not pinnable…

  • jkglei

    Hi Claudia. I am working to get this fixed. We uncovered the problem a little while ago, but it’s a strangely lengthy process to fix! Will try to get it updated soon. Best -Jocelyn

  • davidburkus

    I’m familiar with a similar concept from two futurists, Matthews and Wacker, but I love the term MAYA. Thanks for helping me learn a new and awesome word today.

  • Vera L. Dordick

    Your last paragraph is key. Presenting ideas in a way that seems natural and comfortable to clients, and getting the buy-in of the team is the way to do it. The same goes for making changes within a business, in which case your employees and colleagues are the clients you need to persuade. Great piece. Thanks!

  • Ryan

    Well put, Diane. I am very careful to reference my bosses’ own “two cents” when presenting designs. When I do this, it pays off. When I was a rookie I would ask too many questions and shoot my own work in the foot.

  • Ben_Druce

    Some very useful and informative comments have stemmed from this article. From an industrial design point of view I take the same approach. To give a new concept / form-factor the best chance of being approved I make sure to present it with anthropometric data, visuals, and proof-of-concept mechanics. If you can prove a concept works ergonomically and mechanically then you’re off to a good start.

  • John Kantor

    Amazing – this article is neither creative nor informative!

  • Coman Mihaela

    Thank you, Captain Obvious!

  • davidburkus

    Ben, a great point. Sometimes it’s all about certainty – prove with certainty the idea works – in your case ergonomically. Thanks for the comment.

  • davidburkus

    Glad to hear you liked it. Thanks so much.

  • davidburkus

    Great point about the jealousy bias. Perhaps that’s fodder for another piece. Thanks so much.

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