The Creativity Paradox

Many people fear creativity and also have trouble recognizing it, whether or not they realize this.

The Cornell Chronicle reported on the study, “The Bias Against Creativity: Why People Desire But Reject Creative Ideas." The authors, Jennifer Mueller of the University of Pennsylvania, Shimul Melwani of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Jack Goncalo of Cornell University, started with a perplexing question: “How is it that people say they want creativity but in reality often reject it?”

Two experiments conducted with over 200 subjects at Penn in 2010 led to fascinating findings. Among them: The novelty of creative ideas produces uncertain feelings that discomfort most people. We tend to lend our support to safe, tried ideas rather than creative ones. Using a subtle measuring technique, the researchers also found that anti-creativity bias is often so insidious as to be practically unconscious, preventing us from perceiving something creative when faced with it.

Most interesting of all: These very subjects, afraid of creativity as they proved to be, nevertheless claimed to desire creative ideas.

So what do the study’s paradoxical results mean for the future? The authors write, “The field of creativity may need to shift its current focus from identifying how to generate more creative ideas to identifying how to help innovative institutions recognize and accept creativity.”

Replace “creativity” with “imagination” and you have one of the points of the 2009 book Scott co-wrote with Eric Liu, Imagination First (see pp. 32-39, in particular). As is the case with creativity, too many still fear imagination. The best way to combat that, we think, is to institutionalize imagination — to aim for the seemingly (but not really) self-contradictory goal of making it routine, everyday, a constant.