Creativity is a much coveted asset for a very simple reason: an idea that transcends orthodoxy has the power to bring wealth, fame and status. Commercial, scientific, educational and artistic organisations, therefore, often talk about how they want to foster creativity.
Unfortunately groups only rarely foment great ideas because people in them are powerfully shaped by group norms: the unwritten rules which describe how individuals in a group ‘are’ and how they ‘ought’ to behave. Norms influence what people believe is right and wrong just as surely as real laws, but with none of the permanence or transparency of written regulations.
The enemy of creativity
These unwritten rules or ‘groups norms’ flow almost imperceptibly from one person to the next so that changes are difficult to spot unless they are carefully measured. A classic psychological study on group norms randomly allocated new university students to either conservative sororities or more liberal dormitories (Siegel & Siegel, 1957). Over time students assigned to the liberal dormitories became less conservative as the group’s norms seeped into their consciousness.
Not only do norms spread like wildfire, groups don’t even need to be that well-established, people will conform to others with only the slightest encouragement. In another classic social psychology study people thrown into a group of strangers denied their own senses to increase their conformity with others. When simply judging the length of a line, participants happily went along with the group despite clear evidence from their eyes that the group was wrong.
Thinking inside the box
The purpose of norms is to provide a stable and predictable social world, to regulate our behaviour with each other. In many respects norms have a beneficial effect, bolstering society’s foundations and keeping it from falling into chaos. On the other hand stability and predictability are enemies of the creative process.
When groups are asked to think creatively the reason they frequently fail is because implicit norms constrain them in the most explicit ways. This is clearly demonstrated in a recent study carried out by Adarves-Yorno et al. (2006). They asked two groups of participants to create posters and subtly gave each group a norm about either using more words on the poster or more images.
Afterwards when they judged each others’ work, participants equated creativity with following the group norm; the ‘words’ group rated posters with more words as more creative and the ‘images’ group rated posters with more images as more creative. The unwritten rules of the group, therefore, determined what its members considered creative. In effect groups had redefined creativity as conformity.
In another part of the same experiment these results were reversed when people’s individuality rather than their group membership was emphasised. Creativity became all about being different from others and being inconsistent with group norms. When freed from the almost invisible shackles of the group, then, people suddenly remembered the dictionary definition of creativity: to transcend the orthodox.
Camels are horses designed by committee
So of course schools kill creativity, of course politicians are fighting over the middle ground, of course most TV programmes are the same and of course all our high streets are identical. People are social animals who work in groups and, especially with the advance of globalisation, the number of groups that govern or control our world has shrunk. These groups naturally kill creativity, or at least redefine it as conformity.
Creativity within groups isn’t impossible, though, it’s just that it has to fight all the harder to get out. Coming up with something truly new often means having to steer a path away from the herd, towards new horizons.
If you really covet creativity, then there’s one rule you’d be well advised to follow: go it alone.