- Written by Marianne English , appeared in Discovery News, Wed Aug 31, 2011 09:27 AM ET
Using creativity to solve problems is usually encouraged and championed as companies’ secret to success. But researchers have questioned whether people actually welcome creative tastes with open arms.
At least among adult college students, the team found somewhat the opposite.
Because creative ideas are also new, they seem to give rise to uncertainty or even discomfort for others who depend on the tried-and-true way of doing things. To reduce uncertainty, subconsciously rejecting a creative idea may be easier than accepting it.
Even in cases in which creative ideas show promise, it’s still hard for other people to accept them, researchers say. Many people may not notice their inner bias against creativity and it may even get in the way of recognizing creative ideas, according to the study.
In two experiments featured in the journal Psychological Science, researchers measured 213 undergraduates’ responses to creative ideas. By definition, the ideas presented in the set-ups had to be both new and useful.
The first experiment split participants into two groups: experimental and baseline. Researchers told members of the test group that they may be entered in a lottery drawing for money, which was intended to heighten feelings of uncertainty. Participants were asked to rate a series of words based on whether they were “creative or practical” and “good or bad.”
The speed of responses reflected a person’s implicit, or subconscious, reaction. Then, the participants were asked to rate their attitudes toward creativity and practicality — an explicit means of measuring reactions.
Though participants in the experimental group boasted being open to creativity, many of them had a bias against creativity relative to practicality in the implicit tests.
To find out how people’s inner attitudes actually influence reactions to creativity, the team designed a second experiment. Half the group was placed in conditions of high uncertainty, while the other completed the experiment in a low uncertainty condition. Basically, participants were prompted to write essays based on statements declaring that problems can be solved with more than one solution or only one correct solution.
Then, the team presented participants with a “creative” invention: running shoes that used nanotechnology to adjust fabric thickness to “cool the foot and reduce blisters,” the authors write. In comparison to the low uncertainty group, the high uncertainty group participants were less likely to rate the idea as creative.
In essence, feeling uncertain seemed to stifle people’s ability to recognize creativity.
I first thought using nanotechnology as an example seemed strange because the topic is known to bring about uncertainty in other studies. How do we know people’s perceptions of nanotechnology weren’t driving the results instead?
Jack Goncalo, co-author of the paper and an assistant professor in organizational behavior at Cornell University, told Discovery News that the nanotech shoes were characterized as novel and useful by other undergraduates, even when they had hundreds of ideas to choose from. This allowed Goncalo and his colleagues to rule out nanotechnology’s ability to influence the results.
“All of our participants were asked to think about the nanotech idea but not all of them exhibited the bias (only those randomly assigned to receive a manipulation of uncertainty) which shows that uncertainty is triggering the bias not the idea itself,” Goncalo wrote in an e-mail.
“Basically, everyone was evaluating an idea that their peers rated as being creative but the people who were feeling a sense of uncertainty were biased against the creative idea and favored the idea that is purely practical.”
The findings reveal the need for institutions and companies to make sure their work atmospheres actually accept creativity as much as they may project to the outside world.
“What we found is that people are perfectly willing to claim they want creative ideas but they can nevertheless hold a negative bias that causes them to reject creative ideas,” Goncalo wrote. “That’s what makes this so insidious for people who are trying to be creative [because] biases may lurk beneath the surface.”