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Wednesday, June 27, 2012


We have a subconscious bias against creative ideas.

Does society really value creativity? People say they want more creative people, more creative ideas and solutions, but do they really?

The Greek philosopher Democritus (460-370 BC) promulgated the atomic theory, which asserted that the universe is composed of two
elements: the atoms and the void in which they exist and move. Many contemporary historians of the philosophy of science consider Democritus to be the "father of modern science" because of his stunning insight about the universe centuries before our understanding of atomic structure, which did not occur until the early 19th century.

All of his ideas were rejected by all of the Greek philosophers and scientists at the time because his beliefs contrasted with those of Aristotle who, according to his followers, was the ultimate authority about the universe. Their commitment to Aristotle and his theories about the universe caused them to feel a great uncertainty in imagining any other possibility. Plato is said to have disliked him and his atomic theory so much that he wished all his books burned. Democritus was ignored by the Athens intellectual community for the rest of his life.

Did the ancient Greeks desire creative ideas? Yes. They prided themselves for their creativity in the arts, science and society. They proclaimed Greece as the “enlightened society,” and built architectural monuments to their creativity. Yet the rejection of Democritus is just one of many historical examples of breakthrough ideas that were automatically rejected because of their novelty and their nonconformance with existing beliefs which caused a general feeling of uncertainty.

History also recounts how physicists could not see Einstein’s theory of relativity because of their established, accepted views. For years, they tried to incorporate his view into the established view without success. Interestingly, the skeptical physicists never did accept his theory, instead they eventually died and subsequent generations of physicists who were not prejudiced by the past were able to accept and understand Einstein. What we learn from history is that our established view interferes with our perception and understanding of new ideas and concepts.

Do people desire creative ideas and innovation today? Most us would answer with a loud ‘YES, OF COURSE’ asserting that creativity is the engine of discovery in the arts, science and industry, is the fundamental driving force of positive change, and  associated with intelligence, wisdom, and  goodness.

Still while most people strongly endorse a positive view of creativity, historians have discovered that scientific institutions, business, education, medical, military, nonprofit, political organizations, and leaders and decision-makers in all fields routinely reject creative ideas much like the Greeks rejected atomic theory.

Robert Goddard, the father of modern rocket propulsion, endured ridicule and derision from his contemporary scientific peers who stated his ideas were ludicrous and impossible. The New York Times even chimed in with an editorial written by scientists that Goddard lacked even a high school understanding of rocket propulsion. This example is not unique.  Apple Computer Inc. founder, Steve Jobs, attempted, without success, to get Atari and Hewlett-Packard interested in his and Steve Wozniak's personal computer. As Steve recounts, "So we went to Atari and said, 'Hey, we've got this amazing thing, even built with some of your parts, and what do you think about funding us? Or we'll give it to you. We just want to do it. Pay our salary; we'll come work for you.”  And their experts laughed and said, ‘No.’ So then we went to Hewlett-Packard, and they said, 'Hey, we don't need you. You haven't got through college yet."

Ken Olsen, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., thought the idea of a personal computer absurd, as he said, "there is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home." Other examples are:

• Pierrre Pachet,  a renowned physiology professor and expert declared, "Louis Pasteur's theory of germs is ridiculous fiction."

• Every major corporation in the country rejected Chester Carlson’s invention of xerography. They said, “Why would anyone buy an expensive copy machine when carbon paper is so cheap and plentiful.”

• Fred Smith’s Yale University management professor gave Fred a ‘C’ because Fred’s paper proposal to provide overnight delivery service was not a feasible idea. Fred’s proposal became Federal Express. Incidentally, every delivery expert in the U.S. doomed FedEx to failure as they said no one will pay a fancy price for speed and reliability.

• Charles H. Duell, Commissioner, U.S. Office of Patents, 1899 said."Everything that can be invented has been invented." He urged the closing of the patent office as there no longer was a need for it.

• Western Union president William Orton, rejected Bell’s offer to sell his struggling telephone company for $100,000. He said "This 'telephone' has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.  What use could this company make of an electrical toy?"

• "The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?" said David Sarnoff's associates, in response to his urgings for investment in the radio in the 1920s.

• "TV won't be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first 6 months.  People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night."(Darryl F. Zanuck, head of 20th Century Fox, 1946).

• "Airplanes are interesting toys for hobbyists but of no military value."(Marshal Ferdinand Foch, Professor of Strategy, Ecole Superieure de Guerre / French commander of Allied forces during the closing months of World War I, 1918).


Frank was a watchmaker. The watches he made consisted of 1000 parts each. Frank would handle and inspect each part and think about where it should be placed. Each watch was constructed in a slightly different way which made each watch unique and special.
One day, a teacher arrived and taught him a new way of watch making. He showed him how to make watches by categorizing all the parts and putting together subassemblies of about ten elements each in a certain order and each with a certain label. Ten of these subassemblies could be put together into a larger subassembly and a system of ten constituted 100 parts and, eventually a system of 100 groups would constitute the whole watch of 1000 parts. He became very efficient and could now make watches in a fraction of the time it took before without much thinking at all.

His system of watch making by identity, classification and categorization was carried on by his descendants and became the accepted system of making watches throughout the world. All watches were made the same way and things were good. Everyone was comfortable and secure as they robotically continue to make watches using Frank’s system, which they all agreed was the only way to make watches and profitably.

One day an inventor who had little knowledge about Frank’s system decided to invent a new watch. At first he tried combing the subassemblies in different ways but nothing seemed to work. He gave up and tossed all the subassemblies against the wall where it fell apart into 1000 parts.

Instead of thinking about improving the watch, he thought about the concept of time and how people throughout history kept track of time and how animals and birds understood time. He suddenly had a “mind popping idea” for a new concept of how to measure time. Working hard, he created a unique and novel watch.

All the watchmakers looked at and thought it was indeed a novel concept. Yet none would accept it as a watch because it didn’t look like a watch, feel like a watch, sound like a watch, made of gears and wheels like a watch and wasn’t made the way watches are supposed to be made. None would accept it so they continued to make watches the way they are supposed to be made. This forced the inventor to start his own company and became the richest man in the world.        

The above is, of course, a fable. In real life in 1968, the Swiss dominated the world watch industry. The Swiss themselves invented the electronic watch movement at their research institute in Neuchatel, Switzerland. It was rejected by every Swiss watch manufacturer. Based on their experiences with watches, they believed this couldn't possibly be the watch of the future. After all, it was battery powered, did not have bearings or a mainspring and almost no gears. Seiko executives, with no background in the watch industry, took one look at this invention that the Swiss manufacturers rejected at the World Watch Congress that year and took over the world watch market.  

Once people establish a hypothesis about the way things are, they develop a deeply-rooted bias against anything that causes them to feel uncertain, anxious or confused about their pre-established hypothesis. The novelty of the new watch caused great uncertainty in the minds of the watchmakers. This bias against uncertainty is activated when people are asked to evaluate new, novel ideas and interferes with the participants’ ability to recognize a creative idea. The insidious nature of this bias is that there is strong societal pressure to endorse creativity and its products and a strong social desirability bias against expressing any view of creativity as negative.  The resulting state is similar to that identified in research on racial bias; a conflict between an explicit preference towards creativity and unacknowledged negative associations with creativity.

So we say we strongly support creativity while routinely rejecting creative ideas and never admitting it is because creative ideas are novel and different that makes us feel uncertain and afraid.

Michael Michalko is the author of the highly acclaimed Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques; Cracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius; ThinkPak: A Brainstorming Card Deck and Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work.

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