“People say they like creativity but they really don’t” is Slate’s summary of a new paper. Having read the paper, “The Bias Against Creativity: Why People Desire But Reject Creative Ideas” (PDF), I think Slate is right that that’s the paper’s claim. But I don’t think that’s what the research actually shows.

The paper’s authors rightly say that “Creative ideas are both novel and useful,” but if I’m reading their paper rightly — and please correct me in the comments if I’m not — what they show is that the people they tested were suspicious of novelty. What the authors seem not to be taking into account is that all creative ideas are by definition novel, but not all novel ideas are creative — in fact, I think it’s fair to say that most novel ideas are pretty stupid. (Samuel Johnson is often credited — erroneously — with saying to a writer “Your manuscript is both original and good. But the parts that are good are not original, and the parts that are original are not good.” Even if Dr. Johnson didn’t say it, the quip makes a point.)

So when people prove to be skeptical about novel ideas, aren’t they just being rational? Running the numbers appropriately? That doesn’t mean that they’re “biased against creativity,” only that they know from experience that the great majority of people who think they’re creative really aren’t. That’s why when my wife was in a meeting some years ago and she heard for the thousandth time someone making an appeal for “thinking outside the box” she replied, somewhat plaintively, “Can we first try finding one or two people who can think inside the box?”

Text Patterns

December 13, 2013


  1. "Every novelty appears more wonderful as it is more remote from any thing with which experience or testimony has hitherto acquainted us; and if it passes further beyond the notions that we have been accustomed to form, it becomes at last incredible."
    —Johnson, Idler no. 87 (15 December, 1759)

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