Who’s Afraid of Creativity?

Image by Ian Burt*

The Halloween season calls to mind things that frighten us (or, at least, our inner children): ghosts, goblins, haunted houses, witches, creativity. “Wait a minute,” you say. “Creativity?” Yes, according to new research, many people fear creativity and also have trouble recognizing it, whether or not they realize this.

The Cornell Chronicle reports on the recent study, “The Bias Against Creativity: Why People Desire But Reject Creative Ideas,” soon to be published in the journal Psychological Science. The authors—Jennifer Mueller of the University of Pennsylvania, Shimul Melwani of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Jack Goncalo of Cornell University—started with a perplexing question: “How is it that people say they want creativity but in reality often reject it?”

Two experiments conducted with over 200 subjects at Penn in 2010 led to fascinating findings. Among them: The novelty of creative ideas produces uncertain feelings that discomfort most people. We tend to lend our support to safe, tried ideas rather than creative ones. Using a subtle measuring technique, the researchers also found that anti-creativity bias is often so insidious as to be practically unconscious, preventing us from perceiving something creative when faced with it.

Most interesting of all: these very subjects, afraid of creativity as they proved to be, nevertheless claimed to desire creative ideas.

So what do the study’s paradoxical results mean for the future? The authors write, “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.”

Replace “creativity” with “imagination,” and you have one of the points of the 2009 book I co-wrote with Eric Liu, Imagination First (see pp. 32-39, in particular). As is the case with creativity, too many still fear imagination. The best way to combat that, we think, is to institutionalize imagination—to aim for the seemingly (but not really) self-contradictory goal of making it routine, everyday, a constant.

*There is a Creative Commons license attached to this image.

4 Responses

  1. Great work. Concrete findings and applications that we can begin using to help move our ambivalent potential creatives forward.These findings would support that my “Imagination Station” center was a good thing for kindergarteners after all.

    Imagine it…routine classroom time scheduled for teaching people to imagine and be comfortable with it! Awesome!

    Oh, how wonderful it is when we realize that our imaginations are the one thing in life that we have complete control over. We can choose to share them or keep them to ourselves, but no one else can take them from us unless we choose to share our ideas. Wonderful. Thanks for sharing yours with us!

  2. […] Who’s Afraid of Creativity? Blog: Imagination Now “The Halloween season calls to mind things that frighten us (or, at least, our inner children): ghosts, goblins, haunted houses, witches, creativity. “Wait a minute,” you say. “Creativity?” Yes, according to new research, many people fear creativity and also have trouble recognizing it, whether or not they realize this.” […]

  3. BOO! Add to that list–Play, Dreams, Unconscious, Em-BODY-ment!
    Just this morning I had a Skype conversation with Samuel West in Sweden about this very thing. Because Play, our Dreams (whether sleep or waking dreams), our Body knowledge, and yes! our Imagination and Creativity call us to decision-making and action many of us run the other way (as if a ghost or the boggy man is after us!)….lets embrace our imagination, dreams, and play which leads to creativity and innovation in all forms.

  4. I don´t know if it is common knowledge what has been said and written by professor Alf Rehn, but I link to this anyway since the connection to the subject is so obvious: http://dangerousideas.co.uk/

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