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A human bias against creativity is hindering science, research claims
Dec. 12, 2011
Special to World Science
Most us us profess to love creativity. But we recoil when it stares us in the face, according to a new study that seems to seems lodge a quiet indictment against the whole human race.
Jennifer S. Mueller of the University of Pennsylvania and colleagues, who conducted the work, say their study both demonstrates and helps explain the phenomenon. The problem that perhaps most interferes with our recognition and appreciation for real-life creativity, they claim, is that creativity usually comes with a side dish of uncertainty: Will this new idea actually work? What will people think of me if I accept it?
One of many scientists ridiculed in his time for work now considered seminal—the American physicist Robert Goddard (1882-1945)
Our love of creativity is what we profess in public—but our dread of it is what we tend to hide from the world, and often even from ourselves, they add.
The study is important, they continue, because society lovingly expends resources to foster creativity in each new generation—then often turns around and squashes the new ideas that result. It’s time to figure out ways to put a stop to this, they say.
“Robert Goddard, the father of modern rocket propulsion, endured ridicule and derision from his contemporary scientific peers who stated his ideas were ludicrous and impossible,” they noted as an example, in a report on their findings. The paper appears in the Nov. 29 advance online issue of the journal Psychological Science.
Scientists in every generation from Galileo to Daniel Shechtman—2011 Nobel laureate in chemistry—were initially ridiculed for now-famous work. The same can be said of a legion of artists.
“The field of creativity may need to shift its current focus from identifying how to generate more creative ideas to identifying how to help innovative institutions recognize and accept creativity,” Mueller and colleagues wrote. “If people hold an implicit bias against creativity, then we cannot assume that organizations, institutions or even scientific endeavors will desire and recognize creative ideas even when they explicitly state they want them.”
Mueller and colleagues paid a group of participants to take a series of tests designed to reveal both conscious and unconscious attitudes toward creativity.
In one test that took the form of a word-association game, they found that participants seemed to display an unconscious negative attitude toward creativity if the experimenters had made an attempt to plant thoughts of uncertainty in their heads. They tried to seed this uncertainty by promising that some participants would later receive an additional payment based on a lottery. In the word game—similar to a type of test previously used to reveal unconscious racial attitudes—researchers sought to measure whether participants took a little longer to associate words related to creativity with positive things than with negatives ones, or vice-versa.
In a second experiment, the researchers found that negative feelings about creativity also disrupted the ability to recognize that quality. In this part, they presented participants with an idea for an invention that had been judged creative by a group of college students. It involved a sneaker with a nanotechnology that supposedly adjusted fabric thickness to cool the foot and reduce blisters.
Mueller and colleagues pointed to one possible route through which scientific institutions are stifling their own ability to recognize creativity.
“When journals extol creative research, universities train scientists to promote creative solutions, R&D companies commend the development of new products, pharmaceutical companies praise creative medical breakthroughs, they may do so in ways that promote uncertainty by requiring gate-keepers to identify the single ‘best’ and most ‘accurate’ idea thereby creating an unacknowledged aversion to creativity,” they wrote.
“Future research should identify factors which mitigate or reverse the bias against creativity.”
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