Why We Don’t Like Creativity

Everyone talks about innovation, but most people seem uncomfortable with the creative forces that make it happen

What do we have against creativity?
What do we have against creativity? Photo courtesy of Flickr user moriza

Who doesn’t love innovation?  It means progress and dynamism and brighter days ahead, right? What’s not to love?

Except, apparently, it’s the idea of innovation of which people are so enamored. The engine that drives it, not so much.

So concludes a new study by scientists from Cornell, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of North Carolina. It found that when it comes right down to it, people are pretty conflicted about creativity. In fact, here are some of the words that study subjects associated with creativity: agony, poison and vomit.

Vomit? So much for brighter days ahead. The reality is that novel ideas make most people uncomfortable. Much more often than not, we reject them in favor of ideas that seem more practical—which usually means more familiar. The researchers believe that many of us have a deep-rooted bias against creativity, one that makes us dismiss innovative thinking even when we say that’s exactly what we want.

“Our findings imply a deep irony,” the scientists deadpanned.

They suggest that companies and organizations need to shift from blithely pushing for “creative thinking” to focusing more on recognizing what creativity really means. Ideas shouldn’t be dumped because they bring uncertainty or discomfort. Or as Todd Essig put it in Forbes: “..it may be time to recalibrate, time to recognize that something may be the right decision because it feels a little wrong.”

Science fiction to the rescue

Doing so would require a huge culture change for most companies, writes  science fiction author Neal Stephenson in World Policy Journal. Too much business these days is built around certainty, he argues. “In the legal environment that has developed around publicly traded corporations, managers are strongly discouraged from shouldering any risks they know about … even if they have a hunch that the gamble might pay off in the long run,” writes Stephenson. “There is no such thing as ‘long run’ in industries driven by the next quarterly report.”

And that, he contends, means we’re increasingly living in a world “where big stuff can never get done.”

Real ray of sunshine, that guy.  Actually, Stephenson doesn’t think the situation is hopeless.  But the onus for innovation shouldn’t be on companies, which aren’t motivated to embrace imagination, but rather on science fiction writers. That’s right, science fiction writers. He proposes what he calls the Hieroglyph Project, a call to sci-fi writers to do what Isaac Asimov did for robots or William Gibson for the concept of cyberspace. A new wave of “techno-optimism,” he says, could help inspire scientists and engineers to do the big thinking.

This way to high road

The writer Francisco Dao offered a slightly rosier take on innovation in the Washington Post, although he doesn’t expect much from the business community either. Instead, he looks to entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, who used the fortune he made from the sale of PayPal to start SpaceX and Tesla Motors, the first modern electric car company. Dao believes Musk’s ambition comes from a more magnanimous place—he wants to do good things. Says Dao: “if moral obligation fades completely, I fear the big ideas and grand ambition to change the world for the better will fade with it.”

Study break

Here’s a sampling of new research about what makes us tick:

  • Babies like fairness: They apparently know when adults aren’t playing fair and they’ll let you know, in their own special way.
  • Be a fool, win friends: Embarassing yourself in public can endear you to others. So go ahead, spill coffee on yourself.  No pain, no gain.
  • Don’t blame the game: Violent games won’t make your kid violent. But if he’s moody and impulsive, tell him to step away from the controller.
  • Pollution dulls your brain: Now you can blame all the cars outside for you forgetting where you put your car keys.

Video bonus: Writer Elizabeth Gilbert opens up about fear of creativity.  Actually, her own fear of her own creativity.

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