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Help me out – but hands off! How idea territoriality harms creative team work

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If you want quality feedback on your creative ideas, don’t be too possessive about them

Patents, citations, and copyright all indicate how much it matters to people that they can claim an idea as their own. But new research suggests that staking a claim during the early stages of idea development can be counterproductive, as it cools the enthusiasm others have for making it better.

Graham Brown and Markus Baer asked their participants – 230 students at a Singaporean university – to provide feedback on a proposal on how to best promote a restaurant. Under one “hands off” condition, the covering letter for the proposal mentioned that “although I am asking you for your input, I consider this to be my proposal, not yours.” Participants who read this provided significantly less creative input, giving mundane and straightforward comments compared to those who hadn’t  read such a statement. They also gained less pleasure out of the feedback activity; it seemed as if they simply disengaged when they didn’t feel they could have any ownership or role in the direction of the idea.

In a second experiment with American students, Brown and Baer found that the effect was particularly strong when the participants asked to give feedback were also primed to think of themselves as independent people (they were told they stood out from others and how this is beneficial). When you feel independent-minded you want to make your own unique impact on the world, not be a cog in a larger wheel.

In contrast, priming participants to feel interdependent by describing how and why they fit in to society led to the opposite effect: they made better contributions in the ‘hands-off’ condition. An interdependent mindset prefers accord over dissent, making critical feedback an uncomfortable act, and the authors speculate that this discomfort is less when it’s apparent that any collaboration is going to be transient.

That is a sliver of good news, but this isn’t a desirable trade-off. Independent minded people are more disposed to provide challenging ideas that stand out from the norm, which means we want to encourage these people to get stuck in. If we are truly committed to the success of our vision, we may need to let it fly free in its infancy, and trust that credit will come to those who do the heavy lifting of helping ideas become reality.


Brown G, & Baer M (2015). Protecting the Turf: The Effect of Territorial Marking on Others’ Creativity. The Journal of applied psychology PMID: 25938721

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

The Research Digest is a free blog and email newsletter published by the British Psychological Society and written by Christian Jarrett. Also find us on Twitter and Facebook.


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