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Why Are We So Afraid of Creativity?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Creativity: now there’s a word I thought I wouldn’t see under attack. Don’t we live in a society that thrives on the idea of innovation and creative thought? The age of the entrepreneur, of the man of ideas, of Steve Jobs and the think different motto? Well, yes and no. That is, indisputably yes on the surface. But no in a way that you might not expect: we may say we value creativity, we may glorify the most imaginative among us, but in our heart of hearts, imagination can scare us.

We're not always willing to take the risks that come with innovation. Image Credit: Creative Commons license.

As a general rule, we dislike uncertainty. It makes us uneasy. A certain world is a much friendlier place. And so, we work hard to reduce whatever uncertainty we can, often by making habitual, practical choices, choices that protect the status quo. You know the saying, better the devil you know? That about sums it up.

Creativity, on the other hand, requires novelty. Imagination is all about new possibilities, eventualities that don’t exit, counterfactuals, a recombination of elements in new ways. In other words, it is about the untested. And the untested is uncertain. It is frightening—even if we aren’t aware of just how much it frightens us personally. It is also potentially embarrassing (after all, there’s never a guarantee of success).

Consider a common paradox: organizations, institutions, and individual decision makers often reject creative ideas even as they state openly that creativity is, to them, an important and sometimes even central goal. Or another one: teachers have repeatedly been found to dislike students who show curiosity and creative thought, even though creativity is held as an important goal of education.

As Matthew Pearl reminds us in his new historical thriller, The Technologists (out this week), this general distrust of innovation is nothing new. The story, set in the Boston of 1868, follows students from M.I.T.’s first graduating class as they try to unravel a series of disasters that threaten the city (compasses going berserk in Boston Harbor, glass melting from the windows of the Financial District).

William Barton Rogers, the founder and first president of MIT. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

And while the disasters themselves are products of Pearl’s imagination, the extreme distrust of the fledgling technological college—Tech, as its students call it—is not. The school’s incorporation was resisted by the Massachusetts Board of Education. Funding was perpetually hard to come by (the more established Lawrence Scientific School at Harvard received the majority of donations from scientifically-minded patrons). And the Institute faced a steady stream of threats to its existence, from the possibility of being incorporated into Harvard to dissolution from lack of money and leadership.

Luckily, we know how this particular story ends. M.I.T. remains one of the most respected institutes of higher education in the world. But not everything works out so smoothly. If you’re a student whose teacher constantly thwarts you when you try to do something your own way, you may not have the stamina of M.I.T.’s founders—especially if you come across such resistance at an early age. Instead, you may find yourself trained to stop your creative thoughts before they are fully formed, lest you get in trouble for voicing something that is “wrong.” And before long, you may form a bias against creativity in all its forms—even though you will likely remain unaware of your negative views (after all, don’t we live in a society that values creative thought?).

While that chain of events is hypothetical, the final step is not. New research suggests that we may hold an unconscious bias against creative ideas much like we do in cases of racism or phobias.

The Implicit Association Test (IAT) is a tool that was created to look for discrepancies between consciously held beliefs (i.e., a belief in racial equality) and unconscious biases (i.e., a faster reaction time when pairing white with positive concepts and black with negative ones than vice versa). The measure can test for implicit bias toward any number of groups (though the most common one tests racial biases) by looking at reaction times for associations between positive and negative attributes and pictures of group representatives. Sometimes, the stereotypical positives are represented by the same key; sometimes, by different ones. Ditto the negatives. And your speed of categorization in each of these circumstances determines your implicit bias. To take the racial example, if you are faster to categorize when “European American” and “good” share a key and “African American” and “bad” share a key, it is taken as evidence of an implicit race bias.

Over the years, the IAT has shown a prevalence of unconscious biases in areas such as race, gender, sexual orientation, age, mental disease, and disability. Now, it has been expanded to something that had never appeared in need of testing: creativity.

In a series of studies, participants had to complete the same good-bad category pairing as in the standard IAT, only this time, with two words that expressed an attitude that was either practical (such as functional, constructive, or useful) or creative (novel, inventive, original, etc.). The result: even those people who had explicitly ranked creativity as high on their list of positive attributes showed an implicit bias against it relative to practicality under conditions of uncertainty.

Innovation has never been altogether welcomed by society. Image credit: Portrait of Galileo Galilei, Justus Sustermans, 1636. Wikimedia Commons.

And what’s more, they also rated an idea that had been pre-tested as creative (a running shoe that uses nanotechnology to adjust fabric thickness to cool the foot and reduce blisters) as less creative than their more certain counterparts. So, not only were they implicitly biased, but they then exhibited a failure to see creativity for what it was when directly faced with it.

True, that effect was only seen in uncertain conditions—but doesn’t that describe most decision environments? I’m finding it hard to think of a time when we have to make actual judgments or choices or form real opinions that doesn’t involve some degree of the unknown.

I still find myself surprised at Mueller’s findings. Not surprised, necessarily, so much as disappointed. And yet, if you consider the evidence, they do make perfect sense. As Albert Einstein put it, “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”  I guess I’d just hoped that society as a whole had left such bias behind it sometime circa 1868.

Maria Konnikova About the Author: Maria Konnikova is a writer living in New York City. She is the author of the New York Times best-seller MASTERMIND (Viking, 2013) and received her PhD in Psychology from Columbia University. Follow on Twitter @mkonnikova.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. yannisguerra 6:01 pm 02/26/2012

    It actually makes sense economically.
    As much as we say that we value creativity and innovation, the most economical pathway to survival is to wait for somebody else to innovate, then you copy them.
    Creativity and innovation are useful. After they are tested. Before you know which one is going to be the “winner” idea, there are hundreds, even thousands of ideas that are terrible, bad, impractical, but “creative”. From the standpoint of resources, all the people that used their time/money following those ideas lost.
    All the people that wait for the innovation, then copy it…win. There was in the past a contest for people making computer algorithms to make the one that had the best chance to survive, and as far as I remember, the one that did the copy the innovator better won.
    Thankfully for humanity, there is the drive(in some humans) to do things even if you are pretty sure that they will be in your detriment.
    So here is to the crazy ones http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8rwsuXHA7RA, but even more importantly, to the crazy creative ones that were never successful, and died poor, obscure and hopeless. Because they supplied the raw material for us to live better. Without having to innovate
    Sad. True.

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  2. 2. jtdwyer 8:45 pm 02/26/2012

    Creative ideas are nearly always disruptive to social order. On a visit to Japan years ago I heard a presentation on the difficulty that Japanese technological companies had in fostering creativity in their employees and how Americans were so much more creative. Of course, almost every life experience leads Japanese to value social order over creativity…

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  3. 3. rloldershaw 9:19 pm 02/26/2012

    What a great Einstein quotation! Never heard that one before. Worth repeating.

    “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”

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  4. 4. supersonicscientist 10:37 pm 02/26/2012

    I am of both minds. I have a very highly intuitive and creative nature while still being very analytical and thoughtful. I currently hold in my head a few theories and ideas that I foresee as groundbreaking, that are very important, to do with physics and evolutionary biology. I think that it would not be possible without the assistance of my other side.

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  5. 5. cuthbertbanks 11:11 pm 02/26/2012

    I thought this article started off greater than it finished. My main issues:

    1) The conclusive sentence in the section on the Implicit Association Test says that people tend to have an implicit bias against creativity relative to practicality under conditions of uncertainty. I don’t see how that result corroborates with the main thesis of this article. Why can’t practicality also be valued highly, if not more so than creativity? What is there about “practicality” that there is to be implicitly biased against? I’m pretty sure practicality and creativity aren’t competing concepts.

    2)The first sentence after that section says “And what’s more, they also rated an idea that had been pre-tested as creative…” I honestly have no idea what it means for something to be “pre-tested as creative.” The example given sure does seem creative, but how are there no examples for what was apparently considered to be more creative, when it supposedly was not? That wasn’t very transparent…

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  6. 6. radobozov 6:44 am 02/27/2012

    Maria,
    1.We shell not forget the fact that Albert Einstein was the one who promoted Heisenberg Nobel prize on the uncertainty principle validation!
    2.Creativity has nothing to do with intuition, most really valuable ideas are counter intuitive to most people.
    3. Social scientists do not really understand the foundational base of uncertainty principle relevant to quantum theory dynamics. In real economical sense, it would state that ‘value’, as we live in a material world of some sort which possess energy( assume money), times its flux ( as a function of velocity), is larger or equal than the smallest bit of increased energy (say one cent is smallest bit). But you cannot buy a thing with one cent. That is to claim that a creative idea is uncertain in value times velocity (which is a change in position over time, (say global trade or local market). Uncertainty has nothing to do with reduced creativity, however it limits its actual applicability due a constant change of locality as in determined conflict of interests. If one looked over historical perspective, wars were emerging almost on the entire territory of our planet. Perhaps, you would agree on this one! Consider a nuclear reaction as a consequence of uncertainty. Einstein had imposed on the idea that in a very small spacetime may be a very large energy amount, albeit he failed to predict the outcomes in a long term despite regretting his approval for the build up of a nuclear bomb during WW2.
    4. Rationality as a servant stated, OK, let’s use it as a peaceful source of energy, although again, rationality did fail to predict the outcomes of radiation imposing health risks both in Chernobyl and Fukushima, as well as an ultimate ‘cover’ for imposing on international constrains relevant to oil, weapon, and drug businesses.
    5. Some extremely good ideas may not have to be tested, because the only prejudice of testing is time, and its real value can be projected only in distant future and as for sake, humanity may have turned as a short visioned leaders that cannot solve problems because they cannnot entangle material world VS time using energy and space. That seems so simple although it is certainly not easily comprehended when one takes fundamental constrains, variables and parameters into place. The big question is what are those ‘unknowns’ and/or knowns that could reshape our society in a profound physiological manner.My bet is that most if not all psychology programs are insufficient or deviated in understanding of reality.

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  7. 7. JerryWood 8:02 am 02/27/2012

    Practice, Practice, Practice; IAT: here’s a good sample: Arresting Officer states to the Judge, “he resisted…i struggled with the suspect…”. Interpretations without further questioning is wrong. Why: the Officer was using subterfuge, as the Officer was only referring to his lack of strength from picking up the suspect, not by the suspect resisting. Creativity…humph!!!

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  8. 8. m 9:07 am 02/27/2012

    Most of creativity is directly related to IQ I would say.

    Also its funny that psychologists (for employers) judge applicants on 5 criteria of which creativity is supposedly one. Yet the article states its bad for business.

    So either the article is wrong or the pschologists are wrong…which is it, please?

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  9. 9. mkonnikova 10:55 am 02/27/2012

    Thank you all for your thoughtful comments. A few responses to your questions:

    yannisguerra: Thanks for the great comment and the video link. It’s one worth re-watching, for sure.

    jtdwyer: Thank you for the cross-cultural perspective.

    rloldershaw: I’m glad you liked it.

    supersonicscientist: Yes, I agree that both aspects are important.

    cuthbertbanks: (1) There is nothing inherently competing about them, it’s true–but the results of the IAT speak to a relative bias against creativity. Were the two valued equally, the reaction times wouldn’t differ; you’d have a null result.
    (2)Pre-tested as creative means that it consistently ranked highest on a list of creative ideas when people (who were not part of the study) were asked to rate different statements according to their degree of creativity

    radobozov: All great points. Thank you for taking the time to write that analysis.

    m: The point of the article is not that creativity is bad for business but that businesses are afraid of it, even though they explicitly state that they value it. There is a disconnect between what they think they want and how they act.

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  10. 10. jdottan 11:11 am 02/27/2012

    The IAT is great for skipping right over (mostly) social desirability concerns, but I am interested about the degree to which practicality is preferred to creativity in these uncertain conditions. Can we read the magnitude of the difference in IAT response times as a rough measure of degree of preference?

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  11. 11. DouglasEby 12:39 pm 02/27/2012

    Thanks for your stimulating article. Creativity and innovation consultant Linda Naiman comments in her post “Is Creativity a Bad Trait for a Senior Leader?” that “Supporters of the status quo — not the creative types — are seen as more effective. A recent study warns leaders not to be too creative…”

    From my Creative Mind post Creativity and Innovation in Business
    http://blogs.psychcentral.com/creative-mind/2011/06/creativity-and-innovation-in-business/

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  12. 12. radobozov 12:46 pm 02/27/2012

    Maria,

    In fact from uncertainty principle perspective, that applied to theoretical validity of quantum mechanics, time disappears, that is a particle/energy can occupy multiple spaces simultaneously. For that said, creativity applicability to business holds uncertainty in profit localization, which makes intellectual property a dangerous venue for owner of some power energy/space. Thus, most employers require transferring of IP within contract to employer which further possesses uncertainty on business and security profit for an entire pyramid business scheme. That is a pyramid may collapse. Glad you liked points. Practice, practice, practice is a tool to keep up ‘modern’ slavery working for those that need no creativity that may bring up uncertainty in ‘their’ imagination.

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  13. 13. otakucode 12:48 pm 02/27/2012

    Children are naturally attracted to novelty and strangeness. It is specifically experiences with novelty and strangeness which represent opportunities for development. Parents and teachers, unfortunately, are steadfastly opposed to development. They view their job as preserving a childs uneducated state at all costs for as long as possible. They obsess over whether children are ‘old enough’ for this or that concept, because they do not want to risk educating a child. Only when it is almost certain that no one could have possibly thwarted the annoying drive of the child effectively enough to have prevented any exposure to it are they willing to cede and allow the child to handle more advanced concepts.

    Creativity is especially dangerous to this ardent oppression. Creativity pokes at the boundaries of the known and the unknown – the exact boundary parents and teachers are fighting to maintain.

    To any parent or teacher who claims that this is NOT their goal: Honestly answer the following question, “When was the last time you came across something that your child/student was ‘not ready for’ and immediately asked yourself ‘what can I do to MAKE them ready for this?’” If you answered honestly, then you have never once asked yourself this question. Your only concern is to keep children away from the things they are ‘not ready for’.

    In reality, if a child is ‘not ready for’ something, then, by definition, they do not have the capacity to understand it. If they are exposed to it, there is absolutely no harm done. It is the same as if I said to you “poptart quantum expository plum zipper”. It doesn’t matter what it MEANS if you are not able to comprehend it. If, on the other hand, the child has the ability to understand it but you wish to prevent them from doing so, this is exactly the behavior I am speaking of. You are actively thwarting the childs development for the purpose of maintaining a state of ignorance – preventing development.

    The human brain develops when exposed to new things, and develops best when those new things have a real impact on the person, an emotional effect. Children are evolved to seek this constantly in order to spur their own development.

    Parents and teachers should take up a new job – HELP children to become adults. Not to become larger children, or to delay maturation, but to become adults when their brain is capable of it, and not 10 years later. Only children raised in that way will be capable of appreciating the ‘dangers’ of creativity as their lifeblood.

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  14. 14. judynz 10:29 pm 02/27/2012

    Now why would anyone suggest so sweepingly that humans are afraid of creativity. Ever since the earliest Traders were forced to create settlements to store their booty, & thus growing to villages, towns, cities & gave themselves illustrious hierarchical titles, they would even violently oppose any creativity, they couldnt lay claim to. Despite this humans still achieved amazing growth in creativity. This hasnt changed to this day. However since the 80s & those NWOers have so obviously stripped away opportunities for individual creatvity, at a very great speed. So I say stop kidding yourselves. Our political systems create such a basis of insecurity & fear & brainwashing that is destructive & dangerous to humanity.

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  15. 15. mkonnikova 10:26 am 02/28/2012

    jdottan: Yes, in fact we can. The higher the difference between the response latencies of creative/good and creative/bad blocks, the higher the implicit bias against creativity.

    otakucode: You raise some important points.

    judynz: Again, the difference is between implicit and explicit bias. The point of implicit bias is that we are not aware of it.

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  16. 16. shay876 8:22 pm 02/29/2012

    As someone who has decided to take the leap from a career as an Animal Health Tech (getting zero orrortunities for creativity and freedom) to an artist (loving my life, being more creative than I ever thought possible, and embracing my creative side) I can attest to the fact most people are opposed to the idea of taking risks for creative opportunities. All my life I was instructed that art was not something to pursue as a career as there would be more money in science-related things that I’ve been educated in and seem to excel in. Those opportunities will lead to a regular paycheque, a daily routine, and job stablility.
    Well, after getting my AHT diploma and working as a tech for 3 years I’m going against the pack and getting my art out there. I’m determined to let creativity and freedom overtake my fears of not having a regular paycheque, learning how to market myself and entering the world of art in which I may not be the most educated nor talented. I’m striving to sell my art to make a contribution to wildlife conservation and donating some of my profits to charities supporting this. I’ve never felt better, and it’s all thanks to unleashing my creativity. Thanks for the great read, it’s inspired me even more to not let others or myself get in the way of creativity!

    Shayla Tansey
    shaylatansey.com

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  17. 17. MarkAA 10:25 pm 03/1/2012

    “IAT” is suspect, regardless of application. See collection of some critism @ e.g., http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Implicit_Association_Test#Criticism_and_controversy

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  18. 18. ramon.reiser 6:54 pm 03/5/2012

    How teachers respond to creativity is largely a matter of teacher’s training, selection, and the prevailing educational philosophy.

    Immaculate Heart College, North Hollywood, CA in the 1960s was a hotbed of training for artistic creativity. Men such as Henry Miller, the writer and painter, John Cage, Harry Parch (the musical instrument inventor) guest lectured. Sister Corita and Sister Magdalene Mary, systematically and playfully, ruthlessly trained their students to observe, capture, and observe again, from every angle—and then to create.
    Some teachers brilliantly teach creativity.

    We spent most of a century sending study teams to places such as Austria and Germany to study how they trained people to work for someone else and not just for themselves. We succeeded in building an industrial nation and got people to work in coal mines and on assembly lines rather than on their own farms or in their own shops.

    America was settled with indentured servants who were sent here from jails in England and with adventurers and dreamers, entrepreneurs,poets, artists,clog dancers, preachers,and . . . Our railroads, canals, stage coach lines, and cities needed people who would do well what they were told to do.

    Creativity mostly took care of itself. Intuition is nice; but it rarely competes well with disciplined observation and reflective thought. It usually pops up best by looking at a problem or a possibility from a different angle, a different perspective. It may require prolonged observation and reflection, tinkering and “what if?”ing.

    It often works best when one systematically lists the most important aspects required for something and then removes one requirement and asks “What would be the advantages of not having this? What would be interesting about that?

    And only then: What would be the disadvantages? And, How might I work around the disadvantages?

    For instance, if I ask you to list the five most important requirements for a fine education, an excellent teacher is near the top of most peoples’listings. A medical school applicant I know was queried in his interviews about why he had mentioned as one factor the terrible elementary, middle, and high schools he had attended in his essay about what brought about his desire to be a doctor yet had then failed to check off the box for “disadvantaged student”. One school believed his answer.

    He was not “disadvantaged” by that or any of the other factors he had mentioned.

    By having to take responsibility for his own education he had had to teach himself to read, listen, observe, write, and speak exceptionally well. When his geometry book only gave one proof in the whole book, he had spent a week proving every lemma and theorem in the entire book.

    This experience played an important part in his, as an undergraduate, receiving the award as the top math stat student, grad or undergrad, in his university. He said it well prepared him to practice rural or international medicine where he might often have to continue his medical education on his own.

    Edward De Bono’s books (and CoRT program), especially Serious Creativity well demonstrate how systematic creativity can more than hold its own with a loaf of bread and a jug of wine.

    I have yet to remember the title of an excellent book written about 1962 about creativity and synergy. In the very beginning it talked about how to reduce the fear of creativity within your group or audience.

    As I remember, some of the reasons people fear the truly creative idea include:
    1.It may be totally contrary to the world as they have been told. If it is true then they may have been lied to, foolish, trusted the knowledge of their parents, teachers, or superiors when that trust was not warranted, or perhaps live in a society based upon false premises.
    2.If apparently simple to see, perhaps they are even dumber than they feared or more sheltered than they are comfortable admitting—perhaps even uncomfortable at the idea of leaving their “sheltered” world. “How was it that I did not think of such a simpe, obvious solution?” [Like putting the hole on the side of the hyopodermic needle rather than the end.]
    3.Altho often the logic leading to the insight is clear once the insight is arrived at, sometimes the path to it is very difficult to follow—as any graduate math student can tell you. If it is really true, then sooner or later it may well have a demonstration that is much easier to follow. If not . . .

    Sometimes it is much easier to accept the creative idea if we are not told it but only that there is a way to . . .

    For instance, I heard a mother explaining she had found a simple way to teach her children to tie their shoes so that they would both not come undone during the day yet be easy to untie if the shoelaces were wet or the know tied very tightly. It took me a good number of hours but, knowing that it might be possible, I found a simple way that neither I, my soldiers, nor my athletes have ever had come undone without untying it—yet is quick and simple to untie. Bingo!

    I would not have “invented” it if I had not known it was possible.

    Then the foolish aspect. For more than years than I care to admit, I have opened, and often bruised, my bananas snapping the stem and . . . Last summer a six year old boy from a third world country asked “Sir, why do you Americans all ruin your ripe bananas by opening them from the stem—just because it is a big handle. Grasp the other end, the short end of it, and it will immediately pull free without bruising-here let me show you.”

    He was right. Why did I do it the “wrong” way for so many years? So a little child showed me. If he had been an adult, much less a teenager, I might well never have given him the chance to show me.

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  19. 19. Surfernova 12:00 pm 05/7/2012

    This tendency is a natural outcome of the psychological structural polarity of our minds. The Leadership Diamond provides a very useful model to understand this. On the Reality/Ethics end is the safety and comfort of habit, stability and conformity. On the Vision/Courage end is he fear & exhilaration of rule breaking, disruption and creativity.

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