Big ideas: The four stages to social acceptance

February 18, 2011

What defines a big idea? A big idea is capable of changing the rules of the game, of establishing new standards and making a permanent mark in history. So no, I’m not talking about big advertising ideas. I’m referring to ideas like legalizing gay marriage or allowing euthanasia.

I’ve already discussed this concept on my blog, but I’d like to go a little deeper this time. To summarize, everything started when I read an article in Communication Arts profiling a creative director at an American agency. He quoted Lant Pritchett, an Economics professor at Harvard, who presented the theory that big ideas go through four distinct stages before achieving social acceptance: silly, controversial, progressive and obvious. It must be noted however, that the perception of an idea and its assimilation are never universal. The acceptance of an idea varies from person to person, country to country, culture to culture and from one social class to another.

This thought is an interesting one. To illustrate, let’s use one of the biggest ideas in human history as an example—the Earth’s revolving around the sun.

  • Before 1510: Silly—Aristotle presents a geocentric model, stating that the Earth is at the centre of the universe.
  • Between 1510-1633: Controversial—Copernicus quashes geocentrism and proposes the heliocentric model instead.
  • Between 1633-1757: Progressive—Galileo and other scientists encourage further research and ask that the ban on teaching heliocentrism be lifted.
  • After 1757: Obvious—The Church accepts that the Earth does revolve around the sun.

It is now impossible for anyone to deny the claim that the Earth revolves around the sun (except maybe for this guy.)

Nevertheless, ideas like the theory of evolution have difficulty being widely accepted because creationism is still very dominant in many communities and countries.

The moral of the story is—big ideas aren’t for everyone. Having a big idea is great, but rallying people around it could be a task even larger than the idea itself. Social networks and the Internet will help these ideas to more quickly achieve social acceptance. After all, who would have imagined that a revolution could occur in the Arab world, and so quickly too?

So I ask you now… Leave us a comment on this post, suggesting the big ideas that have changed or will change humanity. Don’t forget to mention at which stage you think the idea is in the context of Montreal, Quebec, Canada and the world.