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Do You Secretly Fear Creativity?

Psychologists warn that stated beliefs and actual behavior often don't match up when it comes to innovation.
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Among young entrepreneurs, creativity is like gold, with just about every aspiring business owner proudly honing their reputation as an innovator. Of course this makes sense—no one is going to pay for the same old thing they have already. Anyway, coming up with something new is both challenging and exciting.

But in the midst of this frenzy for innovation, we may be ignoring a simple psychological reality: While most people claim to love creativity, in reality many fear it and react negatively to those who think outside the box.

Says who? Psychologists, according to a recent post on PsyBlog, which outlines the scientific research showing that people often overestimate their love of creativity:  

For one thing teachers don't generally like creative students. Primary school teachers in one study liked the most creative kids the least (Westby & Dawson, 1995). This isn't an isolated finding in education and probably a result of the fact that creative kids are generally more disruptive; naturally they don't like to follow the rules.

For all the talk of creativity in business, industry and academia, there's evidence that it's implicitly discouraged in these areas as well. Although leaders of organizations say they want creative ideas, the evidence suggests creativity gets rejected in favor of conformity and uniformity (Staw, 1995, cited in Mueller et al., 2011).

To look more deeply at this phenomenon and test exactly why there is this gap between the stated appreciation of innovation and the more conservative reality, Jennifer Mueller, a Wharton school professor, and her co-authors recently designed a clever experiment. By adapting a classic test of racism (you can see how it works with a demonstration here) to measure how people unconsciously react to creative ideas, the researchers were able to suss out the disconnect between what people thought they felt about creativity and their actual views, and figure out what causes the space between perception and reality.

As PsyBlog reports, the results show that we’re often much less open to innovative ideas than we claim to be and that fear of uncertainty heightens our preference for the safe over the creative:

Across two experiments Mueller and colleagues found that when people felt uncertain they were: more likely to have negative thoughts about creative idea; and found it more difficult to recognize creative ideas.

This supports the idea that people don't like creative ideas because they tend to increase uncertainty…. People don't like to feel uncertain; it's an aversive state that generally we try to escape from. Unfortunately creativity requires uncertainty by definition, because we're trying to do something that hasn't been done before.

People deal with the disconnect by saying one thing, "Creativity is good, we want more of it!" but actually rejecting creative ideas for being impractical.

What’s the takeaway here? Even if you think of yourself as open to creative ideas and people, it’s worth keeping a close eye on your reactions to innovative folks and out of the box suggestions when you meet them in the flesh. Being an outspoken friend to new-fangled notions in theory does not always stop us from reacting with knee jerk fear of uncertainty in practice. But at least if you know about this tendency, you have the ability to watch out and correct for it.

Have you seen this tendency at work in the real world?

IMAGE: iStock
Last updated: Dec 12, 2011

JESSICA STILLMAN

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.




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