Expert Commentary

The bias against creativity: Why people desire but reject creative ideas

2011 study by Cornell University published in Psychological Science on feelings of uncertainty and the adoption of novel or practical ideas.


Organizations habitually shy away from adopting creative ideas, even though creativity is espoused as an essential driver of innovation, scientific breakthroughs, positive change, and even moral goodness. In other words, creativity is celebrated more than it is implemented, though it is not clear why this is the case.

A 2011 study by Cornell University’s Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR) School published in Psychological Science, “The Bias Against Creativity: Why People Desire But Reject Creative Ideas,” proposes that feelings of uncertainty around a novel idea can provoke enough discomfort to prompt the adoption of more “practical” (safer, proven, tested) alternatives. The researchers measured participants’ implicit and explicit impressions of creativity and practicality using two separate strategies: one employed word associated tests around creative ideas and practical ideas paired with either positive or negative emotion; a second provoked feelings of uncertainty and then asked participants to rate how creative an idea was.

Key study findings include:

  • While participants with a low tolerance for uncertainty still explicitly supported creative ideas, they implicitly favored practical solutions over creative ones by a factor of more than 2 to 1. “Relatively low levels of uncertainty tolerance led to higher levels of the implicit bias that in turn contributed to lower ratings of creativity.”
  • On average, those with lower tolerance towards uncertainty rated an experimental idea (a running shoe with self-corrective nanotechnology elements) as being less creative than was assessed by participants in the high tolerance group.

The researchers conclude: “If people have difficulty gaining acceptance for creative ideas especially when more practical and unoriginal options are readily available, the field of creativity may need to shift its current focus from identifying how to generate more creative ideas to identifying how to help innovative institutions recognize and accept creativity.”

Tags: cognition, science, entrepreneurship

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