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Unintentional Creations

New research from Yale SOM professor Taly Reich shows that consumers will pay more for something when they find out it was invented unintentionally. The catch? It must be a great product.

In 1968, Spencer Silver, a chemist at 3M, was trying to invent a new kind of ultra-strong adhesive. In the course of his experiments, he accidentally developed the opposite of what he’d intended: an adhesive that could easily be peeled up without losing its stickiness. At first, he wasn’t sure how to use this new invention, but within just a few years, Post-It notes had taken the world by storm.

Does the fact that Post-It Notes were invented accidentally make them seem more or less impressive? That’s the question Yale SOM’s Taly Reich asks in her new study “Unintentional Inception: The Quality Premium Placed on Unintentional Creations,” coauthored with PhD student Alexander Fulmer.

While there’s good reason to think we might penalize unintentional creations—after all, we tend to admire achievements that come through effort, hard work, and skill—Reich and Fulmer find that the reverse is true. People prefer creations that are the fruits of accident and view them as higher quality than intentionally created products. In fact, the research shows, people will pay more when they learn a product or creation was invented unintentionally.

For example, in one experiment included in the paper, the researchers asked participants to read a poem. Half the participants were told the author sat down intending to write a poem, while the other half learned that the poem’s creation was unintentional. Then, participants rated the poem’s quality and how much they would be willing to pay for it.

Participants who believed the poem was written accidentally thought it was higher quality—and were willing to pay more for it—than those who believed it was written intentionally, the researchers found. The same pattern emerged throughout the study for other types of creations, including a cartoon, an advertising slogan, and a new kind of chair.

Of course, the halo effect of unintentional creation has its limits: the creation has to be good. In another experiment, participants reported their willingness to pay for either a comfortable or an uncomfortable chair created either intentionally or unintentionally. Participants were willing to pay more for the comfortable chair when it was invented unintentionally than when it was invented intentionally, but they were not willing to pay more for an unintentionally invented uncomfortable chair.

Why is unintentionality so important to consumers? Reich and Fulmer found that when consumers are faced with an accidental creation, they begin to consider the possibility that it might never have been invented at all. This, in turn, instills a sense that the product’s creation was the result of fate—which, other research has shown, makes it seem more valuable.

Given the product is a good one, this research suggests that marketers tasked with promoting a product of accident can benefit from playing up its origin story, because unintentionality is actually a surprisingly powerful driver of consumer choice.

The same principle applies for products that aren’t for sale, such as works of art in museums, Reich says: “Conveying information about unintentionality in the inception of the creation can heighten people’s perceptions of the creation’s quality.”

So, whether it’s a Post-It note, a painting, or a poem, there’s no shame in admitting to accidents. In fact, it just might help you make a sale.