New technologies and ideas emerge from our collected brains — not individual geniuses, new research finds.
Innovations emerge, the paper argues, by small improvements, the mixing of ideas, situations and pure luck.
While Darwin, Newton and the rest were clearly talented and driven individuals, they were “standing on the shoulders of giants”.
The best thing you can do to be more creative, one of the paper’s authors argues, is to talk to people who disagree with you.
Dr Michael Muthukrishna, the study’s lead author, said:
“The processes of cumulative cultural evolution allow technologies and techniques to emerge, which no single individual could create on their own – because human brains, in isolation, aren’t actually all that smart.
We can see this process at work when two people have the same apparently innovative idea at the same time – such as Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace with the theory of natural selection.
Rather than being heroic geniuses, Darwin and Wallace were in the same ‘cultural milieu’, both reading the same books and both travelling to biologically diverse island environments.”
Societal innovation is affected by three factors, the researchers found:
- Larger more interconnected societies where ideas can mix.
- Easy transmission of useful knowledge between people so that it can be built upon.
- Tolerance for deviation: trying new things is hard and the rate of failure is high. This has to be allowed for.
Dr Muthukrishna said:
“To be an innovator, it’s better to be social rather than smart.
There’s no doubt that there are variations in people’s raw skills, but what predicts the difference between a Steve Jobs and a Joe Bloggs is actually their exposure to new ideas that are wonderful and different.
If you want to be more creative the best thing you can do is to talk to people who disagree with you.”
The study was published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (Muthukrishna & Henrich, 2016).
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
Lightbulb image from Shutterstock