Why Do We Reject New Ideas?

New ideas generate four types of friction: inertia, effort, negative emotions, and resistance

We try to get our ideas to be accepted every day. From the president promoting a new policy in his morning briefing to a company trying to get its employees to use a new tool or an entrepreneur attempting to sell his or her new technology. However, sometimes we forget that people naturally reject new ideas or things that are unfamiliar to them. For example, when the pandemic started, many of us rejected the idea of moving to digital work platforms, arguing that it would not work, that it would take too much effort, or be too stressful.

Working with different companies and entrepreneurs has made me realize how little we understand about the rejection of new ideas. The first thing we usually do to get our ideas accepted is to try to convince others about their benefits or add functionality. But none of this solves the problem of rejection. Let's look at it in this way: adding more gunpowder to a gun will not make the bullet faster because the higher the power of the shot, the greater the bullet’s friction in the air. If you want to reduce friction, you need to understand its causes and design a more suitable bullet. The same applies when we want an idea to be accepted. Instead of trying to persuade by adding more benefits (gunpowder), we first need to understand what type of rejection (frictions) our idea generates in people.

In the 1960s, Everett Rogers analyzed the type of friction that made some American farmworkers refuse to use tractors. Recently, professors Loran Nordren and Calestus Juma, from Harvard have analyzed the rejection of renewable energy, vaccines, or even new public policies. These studies reveal four very common types of friction and the strategies to reduce them:

  • Inertia: The desire to prefer what we are familiar with is powerful. We prefer to continue using old solutions despite their limitations. The more novel the idea, the greater the friction. To reduce inertia, you can start by acclimating people, a commonly used strategy to treat phobias, or gradually introduce digital transformations in companies. In other words, start with something simple that will generate familiarity with the idea. Rather than introducing big changes all at once, introduce them progressively. Another way is to use familiar faces to promote the new idea, or familiar examples to explain our idea: “our idea is Uber, but for haulage trucks.” This increases familiarity with our idea.
  • Effort: The energy that people must put into implementing a new idea in their lives. More effort means more friction. Therefore, people abandon a website when using it is complicated. To facilitate the adoption of an idea, we can map the efforts that our idea introduces into people's lives. In this way, we will be able to identify where we should make it simpler. For example, the effort required to buy a new mattress involves getting rid of the old one. This is important friction that curbs the purchase.
  • Negative emotions: These are the negative and unexpected emotions or social aspects generated by the idea. Because of them, match.com, an app like Tinder, was never successful as it created fear and frustration among its members when trying to meet a partner. Tinder reduced these emotions and created a safe environment for a dating app. The more negative emotions, the less chance of adoption. One way to identify and reduce them is to become ethnographers and ask the consumer why. When we ask several times, the real whys come to light.
  • Resistance: This is the impulse to resist change. In the 1980s, people resisted wearing a seat belt, feeling that it was an imposition. The more pressure from the idea, the greater the friction. To reduce resistance, we can co-design the idea from the start with potential clients, thereby creating commitment and less resistance.

Every new idea generates friction or rejection. Trying to reduce rejection by adding more benefits is like adding more gunpowder to the gun without understanding that it is the air that creates friction. Before selling an idea, we must understand the frictions and design strategies to reduce them.

Article originally published in Expansión.

The author is a research professor at EGADE and visiting professor at the University of Cambridge in the UK.

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