Tools for Changing the World

Social psychology for social good

Your idea’s not from around here, is it

February 28th, 2011

The performer typeYou’ve probably had the experience of suggesting a perfectly good idea to a group of people and having them react with a certain… lack of enthusiasm. A short while later, someone else suggests a very similar idea; now everyone adores it and wants to implement it immediately and possibly cuddle it and buy it presents.

Why yes, this does make me somewhat grumpy.

But it really shouldn’t, because it’s not about me. It’s the “not invented here” bias and it has nothing to do with personalities and everything to do with cultural or social or organizational norms – and our personal preferences for our own ideas.

You’re probably aware of our universal tendency to trust products or knowledge that come from our own culture over those from other cultures. What’s interesting is that even within a culture, people like their own ideas best just because they’re theirs.

Dan Ariely wrote about some interesting unpublished research in his latest book, The Upside of Irrationality. Along with Stephen Spiller and Racheli Barkan, Ariely tried to determine whether people really preferred their own ideas and if so, why.

They first asked a few thousand online study participants to compare their own solutions to various world problems with solutions suggested by the researchers. As expected, the participants consistently rated their own solutions as more practical and more likely to work. However, this might have been because their ideas were better, or because their ideas fit their preconceptions of what kinds of solutions usually work.

So, Ariely, Spiller and Barkan gave the next group of participants the opportunity to come up with their own solutions to the same world problems – but only using words from a 50-word list. As planned, this led to the participants all coming up with identical solutions… and they still thought “their” ideas were better. The researchers finally asked participants to merely rearrange a set of words to come up with a possible solution, and they still thought each idea they created in this way was superior to any others. It doesn’t take much for us to feel that an idea is our very own – and thus more useful and important than similar ideas from other people.

So, how to get past this when you’re trying to change the world? There are a couple of ways:

  • Rather than just throwing a new idea on the table, ask the kinds of questions that will lead other people to come up with it themselves. (Yes, it’s manipulative. It’s up to you to decide whether this is justified in your circumstance.)
  • Identify something about your idea that fits well with the culture you’re working in and emphasize that feature. (Example: “We’ve always put our people ahead of our bottom line, and this just reflects that focus.”)

It’s not easy to get a foreign concept accepted… but sometimes you can disguise it as a native.

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