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creativity… going it alone or with the herd?

January 18, 2012

So, this week begins a new semester, and with it a certain resolution to more frequently add to the information I share through this little portal. Hopefully, I can maintain that focus and make a this a useful stopping point for my students (and others) who have some interest in various matters of a psychological nature. This semester, I am teaching a seminar (“Creativity & Cognition”) and a section of Research Methods. This may flavor the topics I choose to pick up on for this blog.

Case in point – with impeccable timing, the New York Times ran an opinion piece this past week looking at creativity and collaboration (The Rise of the New Groupthink). Susan Cain argues that the shift towards an emphasis on collaborative work (as evidenced by brainstorming meetings, shared work spaces, etc.) in the classroom and corporate office has been counter-productive because it stymies the endeavors of people who feel more comfortable and productive working on their own. Her new book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking” would seem to further develop this idea (although I haven’t read it and don’t see much of an opportunity to do so arising anytime soon). I just wanted to point out a few things in the opinion piece that caught my eye.

I think Cain’s closing idea is right on. In the second to last paragraph, Cain says, “… we need to move beyond the New Groupthink and embrace a nuanced approach to creativity and learning”. Creativity is complex – once you begin considering “why” and “how” it occurs, you realize that it involves the interaction of various components, none of which is sufficient alone to explain “why” or “how” creativity occurred. This means that there are no easy answers to either the “why” or the “how”, and most current theories of creativity reflect that idea. What I see as being the most complete theories of creativity engage with the notion of convergence in some way – the attributes and experiences of the individual interact with the current state of the domain that person is working within and the resulting ideas get picked up and transmitted by others if they are sufficiently novel and appropriate to the issues at hand. Cain’s comment in the closing reflects that complexity, but the main point of her article (that being forced into these group collaborations gets in the way of the creative individual) actually works against recognizing that complexity. She emphasizes the experience of the creative/introverted individual (e.g. Steve Wozniak of Apple), working alone, tirelessly endeavoring to create the breakthrough that will change things forever… (what in her last sentence, she appears to call “the real work”). But this ignores that fact that all of the hard work of the individual is for nothing if it is not situated properly within the domain (e.g. having the opportunity to start Apple with Steve Jobs who seemed to provide a vision for Wozniak’s tireless brilliance) and subsequently picked up by the others involved in developing home computers (from the computer “Homebrewers” she mentions to the consumers who provide a market for the yet to developed pcs). Her deference to the creative individual is reflected in the mention of Gregory Feist (who focuses on studying creativity as arising from a cluster of personality traits – a clear focus on the individual) at the start of her piece. More curious is her mention of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi at the same point – Csikzentmihalyi has proposed a “systems view” of creativity that takes the notion of convergence mentioned above to heart. In one chapter, Csikzentmihalyi (1999) states very clearly his dissatisfaction with a focus on the individual as of critical importance in the creative endeavor:

“What the present chapter seeks to accomplish, however, is to point out that creativity cannot be recognized except as it operates within a system of cultural rules, and it cannot bring forth anything new unless it can enlist the support of peers. If these conclusions are are accepted, then it follows that the occurrence of creativity is not simply a function of how many gifted individuals there are, but also how accessible the various symbolic systems are and how responsive the social system is to novel ideas.” (p. 333)

Csikzentmihalyi is proposing that we distort our understanding of creativity by putting too much emphasis on the role of the individual, something that Cain appears to be doing in her proposal. And because she identifies the “creative” individual as being of a certain type (introverted), she fails to recognize the potential interactions between the person and the situation that are truly critical in understanding creativity. It could be that bustling and rich environments keep introverts from their creative potential, but it may benefit others. With a quick search, I found several studies that found positive correlations between extroversion and creative potential (Borod, Grossman, & Eisenman, 1971; Khosravani & Guilani, 2008; King, Mackee Walker, & Broyles, 1996), and these other creative types might just flourish in that environment.

If classrooms and workplaces are becoming as chaotic and socially focused as Cain proposes, it may not be an ideal environment for some people to create within. However, it may be the right kind of environment for others, and moving back to everyone sitting in neat rows and individual offices is hardly going to be the solution. There is a lot of interesting and meaningful research being done to better understand creativity (and much of it is focused specifically on the classroom and workplace environment), and I think we are better able to determine how different environments affect different kinds of individuals and their ability to create than Cain’s opinion piece suggests.

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