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EASP – European Association of Social Psychology

EASP Seedcorn Grant Report by Pascal Burgmer

11.01.2018, by Sibylle Classen in grant report

University of Cologne, Germany; Project: Ideas are Cheap: When and Why Adults Value Labor over Ideas

“Ideas are cheap. Execution is everything.” Many entrepreneurs might agree with this statement by Scott Adams, cartoonist and creator of the Dilbert comic strip. As scientists, however, we are probably more inclined to value ideas over “mere” labor. In fact, not just science and academia highly value creative achievements. Appreciation of ideas is also evident in intellectual property and patent law that usually specify that one needs to make a significant conceptual contribution to an invention in order to profit from its commercialization (Mandel, 2010). But to what extent does this legal view reflect lay people’s beliefs? Do people value ideas over labor or do they rather share Scott Adam’s view and believe ideas to be overrated compared to the hard work needed for their implementation? What makes individuals endorse the one or the other view and under what circumstances do they do so? These questions have received very little attention from psychological research so far. Yet, whether or not people value ideas versus labor matters for how they ascribe ownership, authorship, and other material as well as non-material rewards for collaborative work such as money and praise.

The empirical evidence with regard to people’s inclination to value ideas over labor or the other way around is mixed. Research on the “effort heuristic”, for instance, indicates that people value work (e.g., a painting) more if they believe it to reflect a lot of effort (Kruger, Wirtz, Van Boven, Altermatt, 2004). In addition, they assign ownership on the basis of perceived labor—particularly when such labor adds to the value of a particular piece of work (Kanngiesser & Hood, 2014). Note though that these studies did not directly pit ideas against labor to investigate their relative valuations. Recent developmental research, however, suggests that children at the age of 6 begin to value ideas over labor.

Specifically, in a series of studies, Li, Shaw, and Olson (2013) found that 6 year olds prefer a picture containing their idea over a picture that they merely made based on someone else’s idea. Furthermore, they also award ownership of the picture to the idea giver rather than the laborer, whereas 4 year olds seem indifferent to this distinction. Consistent with such an idea-valuation effect, other studies found that children by the age of 5 start to dislike plagiarism (Olson & Shaw, 2011), suggesting that they value original ideas over duplicates which might require a great deal of labor but only little creative input. In line with these findings, research with adults seems to confirm that we think very highly of ideas—particularly if they are our own (Ariely, 2010). Thus, in sum, we are left with a rather fuzzy picture: children and adults seem to value ideas over labor, but they do not entirely dismiss labor as an important contributing factor when estimating a work’s value or when resolving ownership issues.

To clarify when and why adults might value the one over the other, we ran a series of studies that examined (a) people’s idea/labor valuation tendencies across different domains, (b) potential psychological antecedents and mechanisms of such tendencies, and (c) their implications for judgments or praise and blame. In our studies, participants learned about an idea giver and a laborer who collaborated to create a product and indicated who deserves ownership and monetary compensation for the product. In contrast to the idea-valuation effect that Li and colleagues (2013) found for 6 year olds, our results are more consistent with a greater valuation of labor over ideas among adult participants. Not only did we observe a labor-valuation effect with regard to ascriptions of ownership, but we additionally found that adult participants allot more resources (i.e., money) to the laborer than the idea giver who contributed to the creation of an artistic object. Attesting to the robustness of this finding, the labor-valuation effect emerged even when participants imagined themselves to have been the idea giver, and in a sample of experts. Finally, we observed labor valuation across different domains such as art, cooking, and business and across different populations such as U.S.-American online samples as well as German students and German professional judges. We contend that adults might be inclined to rely on observable effort as a cue to determine how much they should value the idea giver’s and the laborer’s contribution (Kruger et al., 2004; Inzlicht et al., 2017). Consistent with this notion, our participants were indeed more inclined to perceive the laborer as having invested more effort into the mutual creation than the idea giver. This increased perception of effort, in turn, partially explained the labor-valuation effect. Experimentally manipulating the salience of effort further attested to this explanation and––via comparison to a baseline condition––suggested that valuation of labor might be the default judgment inclination. Finally, drawing from the literature on the role of intentionality in praise and blame judgments (Knobe, 2003; Pizarro et al., 2003), we documented a boundary condition of the labor-valuation effect: although participants praised the laborer more than the idea giver when their joint project was a success, the idea giver received most of the blame for a project failure, hence reversing the previously observed judgment asymmetry.

This research was conducted in collaboration with Matthias Forstmann (Yale University, USA) and Olga Stavrova (Tilburg University, The Netherlands) and is currently under review. We are grateful for the opportunity afforded by the EASP Seedcorn Grant that allowed us to conduct these studies. We believe that the documented labor-valuation effect via perceived effort contributes to our understanding of how lay people construe “creativity,” as well as the interplay between different research fields (e.g., creativity, effort, ownership, praise and blame judgments). We also think that our findings may have some practical implications for how people think about creativity (vs. mere labor) in more broad contexts such as job markets (e.g., development of artificial intelligence, shift from physical labor to innovation etc.). Taken together, whether or not we believe that ideas are cheap and execution is everything has a great impact on how we assign authorship, ownership and allot resources to those contributing to collaborative work—either with their ideas or with their labor.


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  • Kruger, J., Wirtz, D., Van Boven, L., & Altermatt, T. W. (2004). The effort heuristic. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 40, 91–98.
  • Li, V., Shaw, A., & Olson, K. R. (2013). Ideas versus labor: What do children value in artistic creation? Cognition, 127, 38–45.
  • Mandel, G. N. (2010). Left-brain versus right-brain: Competing conceptions of creativity in intellectual property law. University of California Davis Law Review, 44, 281–361.
  • Olson, K. R., & Shaw, A. (2011). ‘No fair, copycat!’: What children’s response to plagiarism tells us about their understanding of ideas. Developmental Science, 14, 431–439.
  • Pizarro, D., Uhlmann, E., & Salovey, P. (2003). Asymmetry in judgments of moral blame and praise: The role of perceived metadesires. Psychological Science, 14, 267–272.