We Have a Creativity Problem

The Four Percent


To explore the subjects’ explicit views, the researchers had them fill out a survey rating their feelings about ideas that were considered “novel,” “inventive” and “original.” The subjects expressed positive associations with these words.

To get at the subjects’ more hidden feelings, the researchers used a clever computer program known as an Implicit Association Test. It works by measuring a study subject’s reaction time to pairs of ideas presented on a screen.

For instance, the subjects were presented with the words from the survey that suggested creativity, and their opposites (“practical,” “useful”), alongside words with positive associations (“sunshine,” “laughter,” “heaven,” “peace”) and negative associations (“poison,” “agony,” “hell,” “vomit”).

This time the researchers found a significant difference in the results: Both groups expressed positive associations with words like “practical” and “useful,” but the group that had been primed to feel uncertain (because members were unsure whether they would receive a bonus) expressed more negative associations with words suggesting creativity.

The reasons for this implicit bias against creativity can be traced to the fundamentally disruptive nature of novel and original creations. Creativity means change, without the certainty of desirable results.

“We have an implicit belief the status quo is safe,” said Jennifer Mueller, a professor of management at the University of San Diego and a lead author on the 2012 paper about bias against creativity. Dr. Mueller, an expert in creativity science, said that paper arose partly from watching how company managers professed to want creativity and then reflexively rejected new ideas.

“Leaders will say, ‘We’re innovative,’ and employees say, ‘Here’s an idea,’ and the idea goes nowhere,” Dr. Mueller said. “Then employees are angry.”


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