The Bias Against Creativity

This article was originally published on The Psych Report before it became part of the Behavioral Scientist in 2017.

As Asimov declared in his famous 1959 essay on creativity and idea generation, “The world in general disapproves of creativity.”

The idea that both current and past cultures tend to disapprove of creativity might initially seem counterintuitive. After all, don’t we all aspire to be more creative? In popular culture, creativity is often held up as a virtue—we celebrate the lives of history’s great artists and iconoclasts and search for secrets to creative brilliance. But as Asimov explains, the fact that we celebrate new and original ideas after they’ve become widely accepted doesn’t mean that we truly embrace creativity.

In fact, the opposite may be true. Unconventional ideas that break from tradition or challenge our existing ways of thinking, which nearly any important creative achievements do, often push us out of our psychological comfort zone. As a general rule, we don’t like things that challenge our habitual ways of thinking, which makes creative work a dangerous endeavor.

Why are paradigm-shifting ideas throughout history consistently, and predictably, ridiculed and rejected? It’s because, as a culture and as individuals, we’re deeply biased against creativity. This creativity bias makes sense if we look at the way our brains are wired. By nature, human beings are highly risk averse. And when there is a motivation to reduce uncertainty, creativity biases are activated on both individual and institutional levels. Across the board, people (not to mention institutions and decision makers) deny creative ideas, even when they explicitly cite creativity as being among their goals or values.

Research conducted by organizational psychologists at Cornell University found that this implicit creativity bias causes us to take a negative view of creative ideas and projects, relative to those that are more practical. The study, conducted by psychologist Jennifer Mueller and colleagues, showed that the creativity bias interfered with participants’ ability to recognize an original idea. This bias indicates a fascinating paradox at the heart of our common attitudes toward creativity: At the same time that we desire creativity, we also fear it. This widespread bias then acts as a “concealed barrier” that innovators must be prepared to confront when attempting to gain acceptance for novel ideas.

It’s usually only after an idea has gained acceptance and recognition that we applaud the idea and its creator.

The Cornell psychologists noted that regardless of how open-minded people are in general, they still seek to reduce uncertainty in their lives. Most people prefer what is safe and conventional, and may unconsciously shy away from creative ideas because they are new, novel, and potentially uncomfortable. However, because the bias is not overt, we’re typically unable to recognize it in ourselves. The study found that while most people say they feel positively toward creativity, when asked to judge the desirability of various ideas, they overwhelmingly reveal an implicit bias toward the practical over the novel.

The researchers note a deep irony here: It is often uncertainty that stimulates the search for and generation of creative ideas, but it is also our fear of uncertainty that renders us less able to recognize creative ideas.

It’s usually only after an idea has gained acceptance and recognition that we applaud the idea and its creator. According to Berkeley business professor Barry Staw, an expert on creativity and organization innovation, when it comes to creativity, we tend to “celebrate the victor.” When a creative work earns the approval of cultural gatekeepers and is integrated into the mainstream, then we applaud the ingenuity of its creator. Think about it: We study history’s great creative minds and the brilliant ideas they contributed to the world, but how often do we pause to consider the resistance they encountered and the enormous sacrifices they made to achieve creative success? Even less often do we consider the failed creative projects that paved the way for those successes.

Conformity, of course, tends to get in the way of creativity. People by nature are highly influenced by the opinions and behaviors of others, and conformity occurs when we change the way we think or act to imitate others. Still, conformity isn’t inevitable. In fact, most children are natural nonconformists. Unfortunately, either at home or in school (or both), many children grow up in environments that devalue independent and creative thought and instead reward imitation, memorization, and rote learning.

We study history’s great creative minds and the brilliant ideas they contributed to the world, but how often do we pause to consider the resistance they encountered and the enormous sacrifices they made to achieve creative success?

Research by psychologists Daphna Buchsbaum and Alison Gopnik found that common teaching methods that emphasize direct instruction—those in which the child is shown what to do rather than given the opportunity to figure it out for herself—can hamper the child’s ability to solve problems independently and creatively and may instead encourage mindless imitation. While this method may allow the student to acquire the information more quickly, she won’t be learning the important real-world skills of asking questions and sleuthing out new information about a problem.

In fact, research has shown that creative students tend not to be favored by teachers. Judgments of a teacher’s favorite student were negatively correlated with creativity, and judgments of a teacher’s least favorite student were positively correlated with creativity. While teachers said that they liked creative students, they (somewhat bafflingly) defined creativity using terms like well behaved and conforming. When given adjectives more typically used to describe creative people, the teachers said that they disliked these kinds of students.

But when students are encouraged to exercise their creativity and to engage imaginatively with the materials, the results can be impressive. Research by Robert Sternberg and others shows that students who are taught using creative methods learn more and engage with information more actively.

In what is now the most-watched TED talk of all time, Sir Ken Robinson argues that the problem is that from an early age, kids are being taught to fear making mistakes, but without learning to play with different solutions and ways of thinking (which will inevitably lead to incorrect answers), they won’t be prepared for the uncertainty and the new challenges of the changing world. As Robinson puts it, “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.”

Excerpted from Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind by Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire. © 2015 by Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire. A Perigee Book, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.