A lot of times when people claim they’re not creative, what they’re really suggesting is that they lack an innate ability to generate creative ideas. While it is true that this skill can be taught, a new study (PDF) from Cornell University suggests that coming up with ideas may not be where we actually face the most barriers.
Experienced creative problem solvers know that a key part of generating ideas (diverging) is deferring judgement. Then once you’ve come up with a substantial set of ideas, you choose the best from the bunch to develop further (converging) – at which point you are, of course, judging them. The study suggests that it is this evaluation phase where implicit negative biases toward creativity become a problem.
The key word here is “implicit.” Anyone carrying out some conscious crusade against creativity probably would not go so far as to facilitate a brainstorming process in the first place. The tricky thing is that even when people are actively searching for creative solutions, they have trouble spotting them in the face of uncertainty — and if they are looking for creative solutions, chances are they’re facing some degree of uncertainty.
Our results show that regardless of how open minded people are, when they feel motivated to reduce uncertainty either because they have an immediate goal of reducing uncertainty, or feel uncertain generally, this may bring negative associations with creativity to mind which result in lower evaluations of a creative idea.
When business is good, people are less likely to be seeking a creative revamp to their business models than when business is not so good. When business is not so good, they are facing a high degree of uncertainty. That’s when they most need creative solutions, and that’s when they are least likely to be able to identify them. The result is that even in situations where creative ideas are valued — or even requested — they tend to get rejected in the end.
What does this mean about companies that tout their culture of creativity? Are they less open to creativity than they like to think? Probably so. The most fascinating finding in the study is that when scientists measured explicit biases about creativity, the experiment and control groups tested about the same — neither group showed significant negative biases toward creativity. But when they measured implicit biases, they found that the group that faced high uncertainty showed a greater negative bias toward creativity. So then the question is, how can we confront biases we don’t even know we have?