But what if the innovator's dilemma is part of something bigger—a creator's dilemma, an innate bias against novelty?
Indeed, it turns out that our aversion to new ideas touches more than technology companies. It affects entertainment executives deciding between new projects, managers choosing between potential projects or employees, and teachers assessing conformist versus non-conformist children. It is a bias against the new. The brain is hardwired to distrust creativity.
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The physicist Max Planck put it best: "Science advances one funeral at a time.”
One place to watch the funeral march of science is America's peer-review process for academic research, which allocates $40 billion each year to new ideas in medicine, engineering, and technology. Every year, the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation review nearly 100,000 applications for funding. The vast majority—up to 90 percent in some years—are rejected. For many breakthrough ideas, this selection process is the difference between life and death, financial backing and financial bankruptcy.
What sort of proposals do NIH evaluators approve? It’s a critical question for scientists. And the answer is nobody knows. Submissions receive such widely varying treatment that the relationship between evaluators' decisions is “perilously close to rates found for Rorschach inkblot tests,” according to a 2012 review.
A new ingenious paper raises a dangerous question: Are expert evaluators subtly biased against new ideas?
Researchers Kevin J. Boudreau, Eva Guinan, Karim R. Lakhani, and Christoph Riedl recruited 142 world-class researchers from a leading medical school and randomly assigned them to evaluate several proposals. Sometimes, faculty were experts in the subject of the submissions they read. Often, they were experts in other fields. But in all cases, the experiment was triple-blind: Evaluators did not know submitters, submitters did not know evaluators, and evaluators did not talk to each other.
The researchers found that new ideas—those that remixed information in surprising ways—got worse scores from everyone, but they were particularly punished by experts. "Everyone dislikes novelty,” Lakhami explained to me, but “experts tend to be over-critical of proposals in their own domain." Knowledge doesn’t just turn us into critical thinkers. It maybe turns us into over-critical thinkers. (In the real world, everybody has encountered a variety of this: A real or self-proclaimed expert who's impatient with new ideas, because they challenge his ego, piercing the armor of his expertise.)
Experts might be particularly biased against new ideas*, but most people aren't too fond of creativity either. In fact, they can be downright hostile.
A 1999 study found that teachers who claim to enjoy creative children don't actually enjoy any of the characteristics associated with creativity, such as non-conformity. A famous 2010 study from the University of Pennsylvania showed that ordinary people often dismiss new ideas, because their uncertainty makes us think, and thinking too hard makes us feel uncomfortable. "People often reject creative ideas even when espousing creativity as a desired goal," the researchers wrote. People are subtly prejudiced against novelty, even when they claim to be open to new ways of thinking.