Murray Davis’ classic 1971 article “That’s Interesting!” asserts that a theory must be interesting to be considered great. He goes on to say that all interesting theories challenge routinely held assumptions. By implication, counterintuitive theories, which by their definition deviate from common assumptions, are far more likely to be great than theories that accord with our intuition. This makes little sense: counterintuitive theories may be counterintuitive because they don’t accord with the world around us. In other words, they may be wrong.
Nevertheless, management scholars learn early that they must develop novel, preferably counterintuitive, theoretical ideas, and present counterintuitive results. Researchers face pressure to overstate the novelty of their ideas to get published. Even worse, as Rich Bettis observed in 2012, researchers may search datasets for asterisks, i.e., variables with significant p-values, so they can report novel findings—which may well fail to generalize to other settings, in addition to their statistical invalidity.
Many times, I’ve said to graduate students and junior faculty in public forums that “novelty is overrated.” After they get over the initial shock of hearing me say this, they look dubious because it goes against the prevailing norm. What can we do as a field to change this? For starters, we can encourage quasi-replications, stop requiring novel hypotheses, identify stylized facts (empirical regularities) as a basis for theory building, and reward empirical research that poses questions rather than taking the usual approach of testing theory.
Research that poses questions by its nature will deemphasize the importance of novel, often counterintuitive, theory. Qualitative researchers pose questions in their work; there is no reason that quantitative researchers cannot also pose questions. Further, the answers to those questions do not need to challenge routinely held assumptions to be worthwhile. Do we really have much of value to tell the world if we only look for counterintuitive findings—which may be counterintuitive because they are idiosyncratic?
Richard A. Bettis (2012). The Search for Asterisks: Compromised Statistical Tests and Flawed Theories. Strategic Management Journal 33(1): 108-113.
Murray S. Davis (1971). That’s Interesting! Towards a Phenomenology of Sociology and a Sociology of Phenomenology. Phil. Soc. Sci. 1: 309-344.