Is There A General Bias against Creativity?

By Enayati, Amanda | St. Joseph News-Press, March 28, 2012 | Go to article overview

Is There A General Bias against Creativity?


Enayati, Amanda, St. Joseph News-Press


(CNN) -- Creativity has taken center stage in recent years, with a slew of books, articles and TED talks extolling the virtues of imagination and exhorting young and old to go out and exercise their creative muscle.

In a 2010 IBM poll of CEOs worldwide, creativity was identified as the single most important leadership trait for success, enabling businesses to rise above an increasingly complex environment.

The future belongs to "creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers and meaning makers," declared author Daniel Pink in the introduction to his best-selling book "A Whole New Mind: Why Right- Brainers Will Rule the Future."

Creativity also matters to our emotional well-being as we find our way in an uncertain, rapidly shifting world. Imagination underpins our ability to remain resilient during difficult and stressful times since creative people tend to be more tolerant of ambiguity and better able to come back from defeat.

And yet, despite its growing importance, creativity suffers from an odd sort of paradox. According to psychologist and Wharton management professor Jennifer Mueller, research shows that even as people explicitly aspire to creativity and strongly endorse it as a fundamental driving force of positive change, they routinely reject creative ideas and show an implicit bias against them under conditions of uncertainty. Subjects in Mueller's study also exhibited a failure to see or acknowledge creativity, even when directly presented with it.

It would appear that we suffer from a bias against creativity. But we are in denial about it, possibly because of what it may say about us.

"Because there is such a strong social norm to endorse creativity, and people also feel authentic positive attitudes toward creativity, people may be reluctant to admit that they do not want creativity; hence, the bias against creativity may be particularly slippery to diagnose," Mueller and her colleagues suggest. Why the bias? "Creativity is doing something differently than you've done before," says Beau Lotto, a neuroscientist and founder of Lottolab, a hybrid art studio and science lab. From an evolutionary standpoint, uncertainty was a bad thing. "If you weren't sure that there was a tiger in front of you, by the time you were sure it was too late," Lotto observes. "Our brains thus evolved to take uncertainty and make it certain."

Mueller says, "We are intolerant of uncertainty in general. The more creative something is, the more novel it is. And the more novel it is, the greater the uncertainty we are likely to have about its feasibility."

These negative associations tend to be unacknowledged, and there is evidence that they are unconscious, as in the case of executives who demand creativity but continue to reject creative ideas.

Herein, however, lies the dilemma: Creativity is what we need to help us get through times of greatest uncertainty and difficulty. And it's exactly during those times, perhaps when we need it most, that we are least likely to embrace creativity.

Imagination scares us because it demands a foray into the unknown. "But only by going into a space of uncertainty can we do anything new," Lotto says. "That is a tremendous challenge, isn't it?"

Another reason for the bias against creativity may be the perception that something can either be creative or practical, but that much more rarely can it be both. Many (and perhaps even most) people hold the belief that for every success story such as Steve Jobs, the "patron saint of the creative class," there are thousands (or more) chronically unemployed and underemployed "artists."

This belief gives rise to a duality, where practical and creative endeavors lead largely separate existences -- one slogged at during the workweek and the other indulged on nights and weekends, or dismissed as a luxury.

The creativity versus practicality dissonance also manifested in aspects of Mueller's research. …

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