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Creativity in others makes us uncertain and anxious

Monday, October 3, 2011
posted by Douglas Keene

Nah! We all love creativity. Or maybe not. New research says creative ideas make us uncomfortable. We say we want creativity in our organizations and among our employees—but we actually prefer practicality. And those folks espousing novel ideas make us antsy because we see novelty and practicality as mutually exclusive. Practical ideas are familiar and often already proven. The more novel an idea, the more uncertainty about whether it is practical, useful, or will lead to mistakes.

Researchers explored the bias against creativity by inducing uncertainty in half the participants. Those in the uncertainty condition were told they might receive additional payment for their participation in the study but that payment would be based on a random lottery and not on their performance. (A pilot study verified that this instruction caused significantly higher uncertainty than for those who got no instruction about additional monies.)

All participants completed a form of the Implicit Association Test (IAT) where they were asked to pair an attitude object (creative or practicality) and an evaluative dimension (good or bad). Participants were asked to pair ‘creativity + good’, ‘creativity + bad’, ‘practicality + good’ and ‘practicality + bad’ using a computer keyboard arrow.

Researchers used various words to connote creativity (novel, creative, inventive, original); practicality (practical, functional, constructive, useful); good (rainbow, cake, sunshine, laughter, peace, heaven); and bad (vomit, hell, agony, rotten, poison, ugly).

The researchers found that all the participants held ambivalent attitudes toward creativity. However, those participants in the uncertainty condition showed a bias against creativity in favor of practicality while the participants in the baseline condition showed the opposite (i.e., a bias in favor of creativity relative to practicality).

A follow-up experiment showed that when we are uncertain we tend to react negatively toward creativity and lean toward choosing practical rather than novel solutions. Thanks to Cornell University, you can read the entire study here.

Essentially, what this study says is that when we are uncertain, we are less likely to recognize the value of a creative and novel idea or application. We strive to reduce our uncertainty and replace it with confidence/certainty. Cases that are headed for trial are inherently surrounded by uncertainty and thus, according to this research, are at risk for missing creative ideas.

We see this often in pretrial research—attorneys who arrive skeptical of the process are suddenly staring through the darkened glass of the observation room slack-jawed and then begin typing furiously. But that’s a novel setting. They often do not know what to expect [and may be more uncertain]. On the other hand, they are also less threatened by the mock jurors than they would be by peers and superiors and they are curious (and thus more open to mock juror wisdom). The trick is to figure out how to be open to novel ideas and thoughts when you don’t have a room full of mock jurors reacting to your case when they cannot see you.
Mueller, JS, Melwani, S., & Goncalo, JA (2011). The bias against creativity: Why people desire but reject creative ideas. Psychological Science.


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