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.
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).
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.
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.