Seeing the Creative Value in a New Good Idea Isn't Easy

How our motivational drives shape our judgments of novelty and creativity.

Posted Dec 01, 2017

☻☺/Flickr: Smelling the Roses via Wikimedia Commons
Source: ☻☺/Flickr: Smelling the Roses via Wikimedia Commons

Not every good new idea gets the recognition it deserves. Promising novel ideas are often overlooked, ridiculed, or dismissed. But why? 

A team of researchers from four different universities in the U.S. and China joined forces to address this question. They hypothesized that an important contributor to the odds of recognizing new and creative ideas is the type of motivational drive an individual is experiencing.   

Two sorts of motivational drive

Sometimes, we are mainly drawn toward the positive outcomes we hope to realize through our efforts and actions. We focus on the things we hope to achieve, our aspirations, on the small or large things that we aim to positively accomplish.  When we are in such a promotion-focused motivational state, we tend to have an exploratory and experimental mindset; we are alert to any new possibilities for growth, and eager to approach those things that could move us closer to what we hope to achieve.

At other times, though, we may be mainly concerned about our responsibilities and obligations. At these times, we focus on our wish to avoid mistakes or negative outcomes, and on being careful not to make any missteps. When in such a prevention-focused motivational state, we are on the look-out for signs and possibilities relating to what might go wrong, to what we might lose, or to the likelihood of failure; we are keen to make sure we do our best to safely and fully meet our obligations.

What sorts of things might come to mind when we encounter a novel idea and we're also in a promotion-focused motivational state?  

The researchers hypothesized that ideas of newness and novelty are closely linked in their meaning and connotations to the sorts of processes and striving that are characteristic of a promotion focus. So, people in a promotion-focused state––with their associative mindset of exploring, expanding, and adventurousness––would respond more positively to novel and creative ideas than would people in a prevention-focused state.    

They set out to test this hypothesis not in one, but in several different ways. We'll here focus on their second test case involving a "real world" test of responding to novelty.

Motivational predispositions and ratings of employee work improvement suggestions

The participants were employees in a production unit of a Fortune 500 company in the power and automation technology industry.  Each employee was asked to complete a survey that assessed their typical or "dispositional" motivational orientation. Using a rating scale from 1 (not at all true of me) to 7 (very true of me), the employees answered such questions as, "Overall, I am more oriented toward achieving success than preventing failure" (promotion-focused example) and "In general, I am focused on preventing negative events in my life" (prevention-focused example). 

The participants were also asked to rate the novelty, creativity, and usefulness of each of 10 suggestions regarding possible improvements to their work products or processes. The 10 suggestions were selected from actual suggestions made by the employees of that unit. Each suggestion was independently rated by a panel of five expert judges from the company for its novelty, originality, and usefulness. Three suggestions were selected to be high in novelty (high-novelty suggestions), four suggestions were selected as judged of medium novelty, and three suggestions to be of low average novelty (low-novelty suggestions).

What did they find? As the researchers had hypothesized, participants who were high in promotion focus saw a higher degree of novelty in the suggestions that were also rated as high in novelty by the experts than did employees who were low in promotion focus. That is, participants who generally tended to be more motivated by positive aspirations to achieve their goals (promotion-focus) than by negative concerns about what might go amiss or awry (prevention-focus) rated the high-novelty suggestions as being more novel. In contrast, for the low-novelty suggestions (those that were judged as low in novelty by the experts) there was no difference. These unoriginal and mundane suggestions were rated as low in novelty by all participants, and there was essentially no effect of participants' motivational predisposition. 

A similar pattern was found for participants' ratings of the creativity of the suggestions. Participants who were high in promotion focus saw more creativity in the high-creative suggestions than did participants who were low in promotion focus.

What can we make of this?

How we respond to a new and creative idea is not entirely separate from our more general motivational state. We may be more receptively open to novel and unconventional ways of thinking, making, and acting if we're not, at that moment, oriented toward signs relating to what might go wrong, to what we might lose, or to the likelihood of failure. 

This, in turn, suggests that, if we or our teams wish to be highly creative, we might want to choose, or create, contexts where we feel that we have some leeway––some breathing room––places where we are free to explore and take some risks. 

Environments that give us such room to explore may be partially ones that we make for ourselves, through how we individually choose to think about what we are aiming to do, and why. But our environments (our working/making and organizational cultures), may also be shaped by others around us, and by what they directly or indirectly imply about what is important.  

Indeed, in another real-world study, the same researchers asked how people from different organizations might respond to familiar and conventional, versus creative and novel, suggestions about their work practices. Based on the wording in each company's formal organizational culture statements, the researchers classified the companies as ones that explicitly valued, or did not explicitly value, innovation. And their findings mirrored the findings in the study described above, but now based on the "motivational predisposition" of the company. Managers at companies that explicitly valued innovation gave the creative and novel suggestions higher ratings on both novelty and creativity than did managers who worked at companies that did not overtly specify (in the company's formal characterization) that the company valued innovation.

Some questions to think about

  • Are there particular circumstances that lead you to more strongly focus on promotion goals (your positive aspirations) rather than your prevention goals (the mistakes or failures you wish to avoid)? Does your work or creative/making context encourage one mode rather than the other? 
  • How might you best balance the needs of both promotion and prevention? Should you (more often) ask yourself why you think something is (versus is not) new, or creative? Or should you sometimes re-visit your judgments of novelty or creativity, from a fresh context, perhaps after a break, or at a time when you're less pressed for time? Should you, like the young girl pictured above, pause to fully "smell the newness" of the flowers on your paths?
  • What other aspects of your feeling and thinking might be shaping (or dampening) your evaluations of new ideas or suggestions? 


Zhou, J., Wang, X. M., Song, L. J., & Wu, J. (2017).  Is it new?  Personal and contextual influences on perceptions of novelty and creativity.  Journal of Applied Psychology, 102, 180–202.