Posted by: Liz Massey | October 6, 2011

Why Your Creative Ideas Make People Uncomfortable

Photo courtesy of SXC.

If you’ve ever done anything creative, innovative or artistic, you’re familiar with the fear and risk that comes with sharing your work. Sometimes that fear is amplified, not reduced, when you’re creating in an environment that’s been labeled “creative,” such as art school, an ad agency or product development group. Our fellow creators, or others who are at least superficially committed to championing the creative process, can sometimes be the most vicious in attacking a novel idea or approach.

New research by Jack Goncalo, assistant professor of organizational behavior at Cornell, Jennifer Mueller of the University of Pennsylvania and Shimul Melwani of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, sheds some light on this rather aggravating phenomenon and the motivations of those who engage in it. In a paper entitled “The Bias Against Creativity,” the researchers discuss two experiments in which they manipulated the amount of uncertainty subjects felt before they were tested for their implicit associations related to creativity or asked to evaluate a novel product idea.

What they found, basically, was this:

  • Most subjects were primed to have positive explicit, conscious associations with creativity.
  • Problems accepting novel ideas came when uncertainty entered the picture.
  • The researchers asserted that,

“When endorsing a novel idea, people can experience failure, perceptions of risk, social rejection when expressing the idea to others, and uncertainty about when their idea will reach completion. Uncertainty is an aversive state which people feel a strong motivation to diminish and avoid. Hence, people can also have negative associations with novelty, an attirbute at the heart of what makes ideas creative in the first place.”

  • The greater the degree of uncertainty the subjects were exposed to, the more negative implicit, subconscious associations they had with creativity.

If you’re interested in the nitty-gritty details of how the experiments were conducted, I encourage you to read the research paper, which is a surprisingly brief and easy read.  In the meantime here are a few of my observations …

How anti-creativity bias plays out in real life
1. Some group is charged with solving a problem or taking a new approach to an issue. A brainstorming group is convened or creative ideas are otherwise solicited.

2. One of the big paradoxes of creative activity, as the study authors point out, is to not only generate a large number of ideas, but to identify the single best solution from that set of potential ideas. People in creative/research/innovation related fields  tasked with finding that best idea are usually regarded as “gate-keepers.”

3. The pressure to reduce uncertainty and find that “best” solution activates the unconscious bias against more novel/untried/innovative ideas, and blocks acceptance of ideas that are also genuinely functional and appropriate,  require a greater tolerance of risk to advocate the idea’s implementation.

How can we reduce anti-creative bias?
The researchers of the paper suggested that “the field of creativity may need to shift its focus from identifying how to generate more creative ideas to identifying how to help institutions recognize and accept creativity.”  I agree that more attention is required in that area. There are two things groups might want to examine to help this happen …

Cultivating an environment that is uncertainty-friendly. That means making your organization failure-tolerant, even failure-friendly. The term for happy accidents, serendipity, should become your watchword. Communications within the organization should emphasize the benefits of responding in an uncertain situation with an innovative/creative response.

Consider a concept offered by Edward De Bono: think about where a “scary/bad/impractical” idea takes you. In his book Think! Before It’s Too Late, de Bono talks about the idea of “movement” with relation to an unworkable idea — instead of rejecting it out of hand, he suggests, think about where the idea moves your thinking. Movement, as de Bono defines it, is the ability to take a concept to the next level by considering “wrong” suppositions – such as the idea that planes should (or even could) land upside down.

This changes the role of the gatekeeper from one of simple evaluation to include elaboration and collaboration. At some point, evaluation will have to occur, but each idea can be looked at for what it can contribute to the overall problem solving or collaborative discussion.

The Questions to You

  • Have you ever had an idea rejected by someone claiming to support creativity?
  • How do you encourage acceptance of your edgier/most original work?

P.S. Although this post is marked on the calendar as October 6, I’m actually writing this on October 5, 2011 – and it has been announced that Steve Jobs of Apple computer died today. I want to say, rest in peace, Steve, and thank you for being willing to take the risk that people would want to own their own computer/have 1,000 songs in their pocket/buy one song at a time on iTunes/buy a computing tablet with no keyboard. You truly revolutionized personal computing with your “uncertain” ideas. Bless you.


  1. This is a timely and brilliant post for me. I am an artist, but in the performing arts. I act. But I also consider my self and ActorPreneur. Presently I in the process of marketing a manifesto to the performing arts community called THE PERFORMING ARTS PROFIT MANIFESTO.

    In this paper, I address 3 BIG problems facing the performing arts community (in particular theatre). You would think that people in the community would be clamoring to get this but alas they are not. Maybe they see it as to good to be true. I don’t know.

    But the fact of the matter is, is that I truly have something of value to the community that can truly transform it. And the solution I provide is simple. But I think that people are afraid of it (partially because I am soliciting people before I have released the product, and partially because most individuals in the community of theatre have for years been dealing with some big problems and can’t see how they can be solved in a relatively simple manner).

    None the less, I must persevere because I truly have something of value.

    Thank you for this inspiring post

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