Seeking Common Ground in Conversations Can Stifle Innovation and Reward the Wrong People

The best baseball players don’t always get elected All-Stars. And the Nobel Prize doesn’t always go to the most deserving member of the scientific community. This, according to a pair of recent studies, is because such recognition can depend upon how well known an individual is rather than on merit alone. Moreover, because it’s human nature for people to try to find common ground when talking to others, simple everyday conversations could have the unfortunate side effect of blocking many of the best and most innovative ideas from the collective social consciousness.

“In our research, we found that people are most likely to talk about things they think they have in common with others, rather than topics or ideas that are more unusual or striking,” said Nathanael J. Fast, a PhD student at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Fast is one of three authors of the paper “Common Ground and Cultural Prominence: How Conversation Reinforces Culture,” with Chip Heath of the Stanford Business School, and George Wu of the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago. “This has the effect of reinforcing—or even institutionalizing—the prominence of familiar cultural elements over ones that are perhaps more deserving.”

Stanford Graduate School of Business: Seeking Common Ground in Conversations Can Stifle Innovation and Reward the Wrong People

(thanks G.V.)


  1. I face this sensation continously – having no desire, in general, to restate the topic just mentioned in a conversation, or rehash some kind of meme.

    But when I do attempt to introduce novelty, people just give me awkward looks, and act through the “I don’t know” personality segment they’ve developed.

    Frustrating no end, I’m very glad I read this.
    Thanks Klint.

  2. This is a trivial realization and a sensationalist title, and as such pretty self referential, if you think of it. Keeping what works and holding the community together is (or at least used to be for a few thousand years) much more important most of the time than finding some, often marginal, improvement at the risk of futilely wasting resources in the pursuit of such.
    There’s a trade-off between innovating and conservating – bold explorers and noncomformists are useful because they allow all the rest to keep society together without growing stagnant. The successful border crossers find new ways, while the “sheeple” huddle by the campfire and laugh about all those who failed, which outnumber the successful by far.

  3. Pretty sure there’s nothing wrong with finding common ground in a conversation… This problem doesn’t exist in groups of people who are down with new ideas, anyway. I guess some people don’t like hearing new ideas, but I don’t usually chill with those people.

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