Saturday, July 15, 2023

People cling to ideas they already know at the expense of fresh ideas, regardless of the true quality of the idea

Greul A, Schweisfurth TG, Raasch C (2023) Does familiarity with an idea bias its evaluation? PLoS ONE 18(7): e0286968, Jul 5 2023.

Abstract: Although many organizations strive for radical or disruptive new ideas, many fall short of their goals. We propose that a primary reason for this failure is rooted in the individuals responsible for innovation: while they seek novel ideas, they prefer familiar ones. While prior research shows that individuals are biased against ideas with high objective novelty, it has overlooked the role of subjective novelty, i.e., the extent to which an idea is novel or unfamiliar to an individual idea evaluator. In this paper, we investigate how such subjective familiarity with an idea shapes idea evaluation in innovation. Drawing on research from psychology and marketing on the mere exposure effect, we argue that familiarity with an idea positively affects the evaluation’s outcome. We present two field studies and one laboratory study that support our hypothesis. This study contributes to the understanding of cognitive biases that affect innovation processes.


Idea evaluation is a crucial step in the innovation process. Understanding the factors that systematically influence evaluation outcomes beyond true quality is key to reducing evaluation errors. We found that familiarity (the opposite of subjective novelty) positively affects idea evaluation–individuals assess ideas more positively if they have been exposed to them before.

Our recent study is in line with existing research on the mere exposure effect, a psychological phenomenon where repeated exposure to a stimulus leads to a more positive attitude towards it [20,32]. Like previous researchers, we find that familiarity, achieved through repeated exposure to a stimulus, increases individuals’ positive evaluations. This reinforcement of earlier findings underscores the robustness of the mere exposure effect across different domains.

What our study adds to this body of knowledge is the application of the mere exposure effect to idea evaluation. We found that individuals evaluate ideas more favorably when they have been exposed to them before. This suggests that the mere exposure effect, previously studied in the context of objects, people, and organizations, extends to abstract concepts such as ideas.

Our recent study extends the body of knowledge on biases in the idea evaluation process, particularly focusing on how the familiarity of ideas influences their assessment. We found that individuals assess ideas more positively if they have been exposed to them before. We built on the body of knowledge on biases in the idea evaluation process, which has pointed out that the uncertain nature of the idea evaluation process renders idea evaluation inaccurate. Since the true value of an idea is unknown, evaluators rely on other cues that are available, but that may introduce error and bias into idea evaluation. Existing literature has investigated different factors that represent relevant (and biasing) cues in idea evaluation [15], e.g., characteristics of the idea creator [e.g., 2426], the idea evaluator [e.g., 9,14,24,25,27,28], the idea evaluation context [e.g., 4,9,29,31], and the evaluation target [e.g. 24]. Our paper speaks to this last strand of research and demonstrates that familiarity, the opposite of subjective novelty, positively affects idea evaluation. This suggests that the mere exposure effect is applicable to idea evaluation processes, introducing a new perspective to the existing cues evaluators use.

Implications for research

Our findings inform prior literature in several ways. First, we contribute to the research into idea evaluation in innovation in general [e.g. 2,9,15] by shedding light on familiarity (or its conceptual opposite, subjective novelty) as an independent driver of individuals’ evaluation decisions. Idea familiarity is likely to be ubiquitous in organizational innovation processes, since new ideas evolve over time and are likely to be discussed repeatedly in partly overlapping groups. This makes prior idea exposure a key variable that has to date been largely overlooked in the research.

Second, we add to the body of research that has focused on collective/objective novelty, which describes a relationship between an idea and a collective, such as a firm, a panel, a body of knowledge, or a social system [2,12,13]. Drawing on [10], we have extended the prevailing notion of novelty by highlighting the subjectivity of idea novelty or familiarity [9]. Subjective novelty describes the relationship between an idea and an individual idea evaluator; thus, it differs between individuals.

Third, our findings that more familiar ideas are less likely to be devalued than unfamiliar ideas also bears on literature whereby individuals tend to reject ideas if they feel uncertain in evaluation situations [23]. Following this literature, uncertainty reduction may be a principal mechanism whereby idea familiarity leads to increased liking.

Finally, we suggest that familiarity is an underappreciated mechanism that explains some well-known phenomena. For instance, the not-invented-here syndrome [5,43] may partly be driven by a familiarity effect, since individuals are more likely to be familiar with internal than with external ideas and therefore positively inclined toward the former and biased against the latter. Also, organizational myopia leading to the lack of ability to come up with breakthrough ideas may be partly rooted in the fact that decision-makers favor familiar ideas over unfamiliar ones [44].

Implications for practice

Our study has important implications for practitioners. The bias toward familiar ideas that we have uncovered harms innovation success in organizations as it counteracts the goal to find, select, and implement highly novel ideas. Firms find it hard to overcome this bias, since it is often individual decision-makers who decide about the fate of ideas.

Based on our research, we advise that managers be more aware that they are subject to familiarity bias. It can be counteracted by putting evaluation panels in charge of particularly important decisions and by job rotation as it can offset the biasing effect of individual idea familiarity. Finally, distributed idea evaluation (e.g., internal crowdfunding [25]) is gaining in popularity as a new tool in the decision-making toolbox. It helps to overcome individual level familiarity biases, as long as subjective familiarity with an idea is differently distributed across evaluators: A more diverse group of evaluators is likely to have a broader range of familiarities with different ideas, reducing the overall bias in the decision-making process.

Viewed from a different angle, our findings also add to the toolbox of influence tactics [3], since employees can use sequences of prior exposure with ideas to convince supervisors of their ideas.

Limitations and future research

This study has several limitations, which also open up directions for future research.

First, we did not consider boundary conditions to our findings. Familiarity and subjective novelty may have differential effects depending on other key variables. That is, we would expect that familiarity’s effects may depend on the context (e.g. high vs. low uncertainty), the idea type (e.g. ideas with high vs. low collective novelty), the idea source (e.g. is the ideator inside or outside the firm), and evaluator characteristics (e.g. high vs. low openness to new experiences). Future research could benefit from investigating these contingencies.

Second, we did not measure the de facto mediating process by which idea familiarity leads to higher idea evaluation. We shed light on a number of potential candidates that may drive idea familiarity’s effects on idea evaluation, such as fluency or reduced uncertainty. We encourage researchers to be more explicit about the respective path and to identify under what conditions each path is likely to operate.

Third, we have investigated familiarity’s effects for single exposures only. For repeated exposure, familiarity’s effects may weaken or may even reverse. When we entered the quadratic term of familiarity in our factorial survey study, we found significant decreasing returns for familiarity, but the effect remained positive over the full range of responses. Future research should investigate whether this positive effect turns negative and leads to reduced evaluation for very high exposure levels.

Fourth, the field studies were conducted within a large automotive firm, which might limit the generalizability of the results to other industries and organizations. Future research should replicate the study in different industries and organization types, which will help validate the findings and increase the generalizability of the results.