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People suck at recognizing creative ideas. Here’s a way to overcome this.

Datum:16 januari 2020
Auteur:Marta Wronska
People suck at recognizing creative ideas. Here’s a way to overcome this.
People suck at recognizing creative ideas. Here’s a way to overcome this.

With a multitude of tools for efficient brainstorming, people often find themselves with more creative ideas than they can implement. Then, the hardest part begins: idea evaluation and selection. Perhaps it doesn’t feel this way, but we are exceptionally lousy at selecting the most creative ideas. We often go for the safe and mundane. Something that can help is… intuition.

Let’s face it: We are not the masters of identifying creative ideas. Our minds are associative machines, which rely on schemas too often. We like familiarity, prefer typicality, and avoid situations that violate our expectations. Not surprisingly, research shows that we are drawn to typical ideas, devaluate originality, and prefer feasibility. This tendency is so strong that the scientific efforts to boost idea selection were mostly futile, and it seemed that humans were virtually resistant to improving idea selection skills.

But how come we revolutionized technology and medicine, and flourished in arts and culture, if we suck at recognizing creative ideas? To some extent, creative ideas have been recognized and implemented throughout the history. But perhaps we would have progressed much faster if we had recognized creative ideas more efficiently. Why is it so hard though? Are creative ideas ugly ducklings?

This might be the problem. Highly original ideas are often ugly, because they come with a lot of trouble: uncertainty about the success, problems with the implementation, and the risk of social rejection. Even worse, thinking about these potential issues elicits analytical, deeper way of thinking, which in turn, reinforces the focus on problem’s feasibility. It magnifies what might not work in practice. Instead of appreciating originality, we end up rejecting the idea, because it seems impractical. But creative ideas are never original or feasible alone; they constitute a combination of originality and usefulness. So how can we overcome the focus on practicality and overthinking?

Yuxi Zhu with his colleagues from Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, came up with a simple method, which utilizes the opposite of analytic thinking: intuition. They suspected that intuitive approach might help people incorporate both usefulness and originality criterion. This should enable people to detect the creative ideas better than at random. In two experiments, they asked participants to select six most creative ideas out of 18, as well as evaluate each idea on creativity, originality, and usefulness. Participants were informed that the selected creative ideas need to be both original and useful. All ideas addressed the same problem (how to encourage people to take the train) and were earlier evaluated by creativity experts. Half of the participants selected and evaluated ideas intuitively (intuition condition), while the other half selected and evaluated ideas through careful analysis (deliberation condition). Researchers checked whether “intuitive” participants were faster in their selection (task duration) and if the selection was based on what felt intuitively right to them (five self-report items).

In both experiments, “intuitive” participants selected ideas faster, and reported that their selection was more intuitive. This indicates that manipulation worked – participants differed in their processing styles (intuitive vs. deliberative). More importantly, “intuitive” participants selected ideas which were more creative and original but not more useful than “deliberative” participants. People from the intuition condition also selected more ideas that were predefined by the researchers as optimal (both highly original and useful) than people from the deliberation condition.

The most interesting result showed that “intuitive” but not “deliberative” participants selected more creative and original ideas than the average idea in the pool. Their selection was better than at chance level! The difference between selected and average idea creativity and originality was exceptionally large, which suggests that intuitive approach yields surprisingly big advantages. However, both intuitive and deliberative participants selected more useful ideas than an average idea in the pool. These results were confirmed in the second study, where the order of selection and evaluation tasks was reversed.

These studies provide very promising evidence for using intuition as an idea selection and evaluation tool. Missing from this research was a control group – intuition condition was compared only against deliberation condition. Therefore, we still don’t know whether intuitive approach helps or the deliberation approach impairs creative idea selection. Nevertheless, if the intuitive approach can boost your idea selection above the chance level, then it’s certainly worth trying – unless we are able to find something even more efficient.

Based on this research, here’s how you can better recognize creative ideas:

  1. Decide how many ideas need to be selected (in this research, it was six).
  2. Put all considered ideas on a single sheet or screen, so you can see them simultaneously.
  3. Evaluate intuitively all ideas on (1) creativity, (2) originality, and (3) usefulness, using a scale from 1 = not at all to 7 = very much.
  4. Select most creative ideas using your intuition. “Creative” means “original” and “useful” at the same time.
  5. Optionally, verify whether your selected ideas received the highest creativity evaluations, or if you were biased towards originality or usefulness.

Marta Wronska (m.k.wronska is a PhD candidate at the Department of Human Resource Management & Organizational Behavior, University of Groningen. Her dissertation is about motivational mechanisms involved in creativity, such as how engaging in creativity influences attentional breadth (broad or narrow lens through which people perceive the world) and how active goals influence creative problem solving through cognitive mechanisms. She writes about psychology of creativity at


Zhu, Y., Ritter, S. M., Müller, B. C., & Dijksterhuis, A. (2017). Creativity: Intuitive processing outperforms deliberative processing in creative idea selection. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 73, 180-188.