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Being Politically Correct Can Actually Boost Creativity

In mixed-gender groups, being PC makes everyone more comfortable and lets ideas flow

(Serge Kozak/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Has a new version of political correctness taken over the media? Sounds bad. (Assuming it's even true.) Originally, being "politically correct" meant avoiding pejorative terms and discrimination. But the idea was quickly decried as too sensitive; it propagated unnecessary outrage, critics said. The concept is now so fraught that some view the term itself as an insult and a way to "strangle" freedom of speech

The negative associations with political correctness are strong enough that researchers thought they might investigate some of those criticisms. One of the critiques of PC speech is that "[p]eople should be able to freely think, throw any crazy ideas, and any constraint would actually dampen creativity," Michelle Duguid, of Washington University in St. Louis, told NPR. She and her colleagues wanted to see if the notion that political correctness can stifle creativity has any merit.

NPR reports:

They sat down students in groups of three to brainstorm ideas on how to use a vacant space on campus. Some of the groups were all men, some all women, others mixed. Control groups got to start right away on the brainstorming, but the test groups were primed with a script.

The research team told those groups that they were interested in gathering examples from college undergraduates of politically correct behavior on campus. They were instructed to, as a group, list examples of political correctness that they had either heard of or directly experienced on this campus.

The researchers assessed the ideas each group generated after 10 minutes of brainstorming. In same-sex groups, they found, political correctness priming produced less creative ideas. In the mixed groups however, creativity got a boost. "They generated more ideas, and those ideas were more novel," Duguid told NPR. "Whether it was two men and one woman or two women and one man, the results were consistent." The creativity of each group’s ideas was assessed by independent, blind raters. The work is forthcoming in the journal Administrative Science Quarterly

The researchers suspect that the safe space created by political correctness helped people be more open with their ideas and reduced the uncertainty people felt about how they should act. “Having that [political correctness instruction] was almost like a framework that helped guide the interaction and understand what was expected of them,” study co-author Jack Goncalo, of Cornell University, told the Atlantic. “And that predictability made them more comfortable." 

Another test the researchers performed found that, when people were told that everyone is guilty of stereotyping, they felt more comfortable expressing their stereotypes. When they told groups, on the other hand, that "the vast majority of people put effort into not stereotyping," NPR reports, the study subjects tried harder to avoid it themselves. "I think most people want to be unbiased, and there are ways we can try to make that happen," Duguid says.

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