For all our talk about innovation and “thinking differently,” it turns out, Americans distrust creativity. We superficially value outside-of-the-box thinking, but it also secretly frightens us. At least, that’s the argument Maria Konnikova made a few weeks ago in the Scientific American.
Konnikova points to our instinctive fear of uncertainty as the cause. Habitual, practical choices, she writes, are better for society: they maintain the status quo. Novel, untested elements and creative solutions have the potential to go awry. Because we don’t know what the outcome will be, we tend to distrust creativity.
There’s some research to back these assertions up. One 1995 analysis reports two studies on teachers’ perceptions of students in the classroom – and concludes that creative, curious students aren’t looked on favorably by their teachers. If, like me, you were a student who doodled while taking notes for lectures, or wanted to approach projects in new and interesting ways, this should come as no great shock.
More recent research shows that people may even harbor unconscious biases against creative ideas – in a way similar to how we harbor prejudice or phobias. Konnikova explains:
The Implicit Association Test (IAT) is a tool that was created to look for discrepancies between consciously held beliefs (i.e., a belief in racial equality) and unconscious biases (i.e., a faster reaction time when pairing white with positive concepts and black with negative ones than vice versa). The measure can test for implicit bias toward any number of groups (though the most common one tests racial biases) by looking at reaction times for associations between positive and negative attributes and pictures of group representatives. Sometimes, the stereotypical positives are represented by the same key; sometimes, by different ones. Ditto the negatives. And your speed of categorization in each of these circumstances determines your implicit bias. To take the racial example, if you are faster to categorize when “European American” and “good” share a key and “African American” and “bad” share a key, it is taken as evidence of an implicit race bias.
Researchers ran a series of studies using this framework to test attitudes towards creative ideas. They found that even though subjects would rate creativity highly as a positive attribute, when confronted with an actual example of a creative idea, they showed a bias against it.
What does it all mean? Konnikova doesn’t say. I think the take-away from these studies needs to be a greater awareness of our anxiety in uncertain situations. Maybe, sometimes, the best idea is the one that scares us the most.
Photo credit: Gordon Wrigley