“Proximity is not a stand in for expertise.” – Seth Godin
We often miss creative ideas that are right under our noses. Where the idea comes from seems to influence whether or not people think something’s a good idea. The further away that an idea comes from, the better people think that it is.
Shankar Vedantam, the science correspondent for NPR, discussed a new study on this subject in a recent piece. The researchers told their subjects about a new shoe that uses nanotechnology to reduce blisters. Some were told the idea was developed far away. Others were told it was developed nearby.
The study found that people thought the shoe idea was significantly more creative when it was thought to have come from far away than from a nearby source. Our brains are wired to assume that ideas that come from nearby are more concrete so they’re not considered as creative as the more abstract concepts that come from further away.
We perceive risks to be more obvious when they are close by but are more confident that things will work out through advice from an outside source. The examples in the NPR piece were that managers typically ignore good ideas that come from their own employees but are quick to agree with outside consultants.
There are obvious investment advice parallels here as well. The simple choice never feels like the right one. For some reason investors feel more comfortable with complex strategies and higher fees. Steve Jobs had a good quote on this subject:
Simple can be harder than complex. You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there you can move mountains.
We are also eager to take advice from someone that sounds intelligent on TV or in an article, without vetting their predictions or doing our own research before making a purchase or sale.
Uncertainty makes people anxious and uncomfortable so we are willing to listen to those that claim they can predict the future to alleviate that tension. No one knows for sure what’s going to happen tomorrow, but it makes us feel better to believe that someone can forecast the future to make us feel better.
Obviously not every idea right in front of your face is going to be the right one either, but you can’t assume that all outside sources know best.
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