Why No One Really Wants Creativity

Goncalo research uncovers bias that silently undermines creativity
Friday, August 26, 2011

Creativity, hailed as a positive change agent, makes people squirm.

"How is it that people say they want creativity, but, in reality, often reject it?" asks Professor Jack Goncalo.

Co-author of research being published in an upcoming issue of the journal "Psychological Science," Goncalo outlined in an interview what research shows:

  • Creative ideas are novel by definition and novelty can trigger feelings of uncertainty that make most people very uncomfortable.
  • People pierce the tension by dismissing creative ideas in favor of ideas that are purely practical -- tried and true, but not novel.
  • Objective evidence shoring up the validity of a creative proposal does not motivate people to accept it.
  • The anti-creativity bias is so subtle that people are unaware of it, which can interfere with their ability to even recognize a creative idea.

Those findings grew from two 2010 experiments at the University of Pennsylvania involving more than 200 people.

To uncover the bias against creativity, researchers used a subtle technique for measuring unconscious bias – the kind to which people may not want to readily admit, such as racism. Results revealed that though people explicitly claimed to desire creative ideas, they more readily associated creative ideas with negative words such as "vomit," "poison" and "agony" than with purely practical ideas.

Most disturbingly, Goncalo said, this bias caused them to reject objectively creative ideas for new products that were both novel and high quality. He pointed to negative reaction to a running shoe with nanotechnology that adjusted fabric thickness to cool the foot and reduce blisters.

Goncalo, Jennifer Mueller of the University of Pennsylvania and Shimul Melwani of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, said "our findings imply a deep irony."

Although uncertainty drives the search for and generation of creative ideas, "uncertainty also makes us less able to recognize creativity, perhaps when we need it most."

"Revealing the existence and nature of a bias against creativity can help explain why people might reject creative ideas and stifle scientific advancements, even in the face of strong intentions to the contrary," the social scientists wrote.

"… The field of creativity may need to shift its current focus from identifying how to generate more creative ideas to identify how to help innovative institutions recognize and accept creativity," they said.

The study, "The bias against creativity: Why people desire but reject creative ideas," might validate the frustrations of creative people, Goncalo said.

The next time your great idea at work elicits silence or eye rolls, pity the evaluators.

Fresh research indicates they don’t even know what a creative idea looks like.