Why decision makers react to creative ideas like vomit: The Anti-Creativity Bias

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Why is it that while so many companies say they want to encourage creativity, they actually end up rejecting it?

Are they lying, or is there something unconscious which is happening?

This is what researchers Jennier Mueller, Jack Goncalo and Shimul Melwani set out to study, and published their results in The Bias Against Creativity: Why People Desire but Reject Creative Ideas.

In two experiments with 213 participants, the researchers wanted to see how participants would consider the creativity and practicality of ideas in two ways:

  1. Explicitly state their acceptance and desire for creativity and practicality (on a scale of 1 = strongly negative, 4 = neutral, 7 = strongly positive)
  2. Implicitly link words associated with creativity (novel, creative, inventive, original) and practicality (practical, functional, constructive, and useful) with other random words related to good (rainbow, cake, sunshine, laughter, peace, heaven) and bad (vomit, hell, agony, rotten, poison, ugly). This was called the Implicit Association Test (IAT).

The IAT was performed by participants being shown pairs of words with either creative / practical and good / bad pairings, and were tasked with reacting as fast as possible on a keyboard as to whether these were positive or negative. Using statistical analysis comparing the speed of reaction for practical words and creative words, a relationship between creative and good / bad feelings could be statistically modelled.

Crucially, in the second experiment, participants were also put into a mental state which either was more, or less, open to uncertainty (a situation which can happen when people need to make decisions), as well as asking them to assess the creativity of a very creative new invention (a shoe with nanotechnology for cooling).

The results were fascinating.

In both sets of experiments, the majority of people explicitly said they looked for creativity. This represents what they would probably say in a conversation or interview. But the IAT showed their gut reaction (based on the subconscious) associated creative concepts more with “bad” words and feelings (like vomit, poison or agony) than practicality did.

This was even more pronounced in the situation where participants were feeling high uncertainty, those with high uncertainty also assessed the new shoe idea as less creative than the others did.

What this means:

When you put someone into a position of uncertainty, such as when they need to make decisions but don’t have perfect information (such as what happens with every new idea and innovation), even if they explicitly state they like creative solutions, they perceive creative ideas as less creative than they really are, and will react more positively to practical solutions and more negatively to creative solutions.

This is the anti-creativity bias in action.

A landmark study of creative behaviour.

So if you are ever tasked with assessing a new idea, be aware of your own biases, and it might help you come to a better decision than if you just go with your gut.

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