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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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Most people profess to love creativity. But we also 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? 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 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 creativity. 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 stifiling 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.”