Where Credit Is Due

What's more important, coming up with a great idea or executing one?

By Ilana Herzig, published November 6, 2018 - last reviewed on January 1, 2019

Mohdizuan/Shutterstock
Mohdizuan/Shutterstock

What's more important, coming up with a great idea or executing one? New research suggests that when two people collaborate—one generating a concept, the other carrying it out—their contributions aren't valued equally by others. In at least some creative contexts, outside observers seem to think the partner who carries out the plan deserves more credit and reward.

In recent studies, that finding held for hypothetical projects such as paintings, business plans, and multi-course menus. Only when the formation of an idea was explicitly said to require much more time than its execution (more than a day versus a few hours) did this favoritism disappear.

The results may be due to the "perceived effort heuristic," in which people "associate effort with things they can observe" as opposed to invisible mental activity, says lead researcher Pascal Burgmer, a psychologist at the University of Cologne. Yet the role of the partner who does the hands-on work may not seem as outsized when a collaboration turns out poorly: In one such scenario, where two friends surprised another with an unappetizing meal, the idea generator absorbed the greater part of the blame.