Let it go! A strong bond to an idea makes collaboration more challenging

Ideas are all around us — helping solve problems, develop new products, and make important decisions. Good ideas are rarely created in a vacuum, however. They often emerge when people refine their ideas in response to suggestions and comments received from colleagues.

Markus Baer

Having strong bonds to an idea can make that necessary collaboration challenging, finds new research from Washington University in St. Louis. The study suggests that psychological ownership — the extent to which people feel as though an object, or idea, is truly theirs— may be at the root of this phenomenon.

“This research really looks at the conditions when psychological ownership can lead individuals to embrace change, and when it can cause people to be territorial over their ideas,” says Markus Baer, PhD, assistant professor of organizational behavior in Olin Business School at Washington University.

Baer’s paper, “Blind in One Eye: How Psychological Ownership of Ideas Affects the Types of Suggestions People Adopt,” appears in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

Graham Brown, PhD, from the University of Victoria, British Columbia, is co-author.

Independent of legal ownership over intellectual property, the researchers wanted to explore the psychological ownership of ideas and how people respond when others suggest changes to ideas they find fundamentally their own.

The authors speculated that whether people who feel a strong psychological bond to an object remain open to adopting others’ suggestions for changing that object or resist such attempts is in large part determined by the nature of the change attempt itself.

Through a series of experiments, they found that when a person comes up with a set of ideas and presents it to a colleague for suggestions, that person will accept suggestions that build upon their ideas but will reject suggestions that take away from them.

“When you feel an idea is yours, you are very selective about adopting others’ suggestions for change,” Baer says. “While you may not mind others adding to your idea, when they take things away from it, you get very upset.”

If people are only minimally invested in an idea, the opposite happens. They are more likely to accept suggestions that are subtractive but reject changes that build on the ideas.

“If people feel strong ownership of a particular idea, it can inhibit their ability to work together and the type of feedback they are willing to consider,” Baer says. “Both additive and subtractive ideas can be helpful, but people with strong ownership have a hard time letting go. They really fight for their ideas.”

“The findings of the present research suggest that psychological ownership can be beneficial, propelling people to remain open to others’ suggestions for change, but they also highlight that ownership can have negative consequences causing people to resist change,” the researchers write.

“Thus, rather than assuming that experiencing ownership will always have beneficial effects, our results solidify the perspective that ownership seems to be a double-edged sword with very different consequences, depending upon whether change results in an extension or reduction of one’s psychological possessions.”