Pressure to Conform Can Inspire Creativity

New research suggests less-creative people do more innovative thinking when they are told individualism is the norm, and instructed to conform.
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New research suggests less-creative people do more innovative thinking when they are told individualism is the norm, and instructed to conform.

Do you think of yourself as not particularly creative? Well, you might have more innovative ideas than you realize. To access them, you just need to feel some pressure to conform.

Admittedly, that sounds like an oxymoron; creative thinking and conformity are usually considered mutually exclusive. But newly published research finds a specific sort of arm twisting can help people who aren’t terribly innovative increase their creative output.

The key is pressuring them to think independently, within the confines of a group project.

In the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes,Jack Goncalo of Cornell University and Michelle Duguid of Washington University describe a study featuring 496 undergraduates. Participants began by filling out a 30-item survey designed to measure their perceived level of creativity.

Based on their answers, they were divided into three groups: those who were most creative, least creative, and those in the middle. The top and bottom third went on to perform the rest of the experiment, which consisted of two brainstorming exercises.

The remaining participants were assigned to smaller groups that received different sets of instructions. All were all given the same basic task: they had 10 minutes to decide what items a family should take with them on a vacation to the moon, and 15 minutes to come up with ideas for a new business that could move into a space being vacated by the bankrupt campus restaurant.

Some of the groups were pressured to conform to a norm of individualistic thinking during this process. Participants were told they were “expected to remain independent and to prioritize their own goals over those of the group.” In contrast, others were pressured to conform to a concept of collectiveness; they were “expected to be cooperative and to prioritize their group’s goals.”

Still others were told they should choose for themselves how individualistic or collectivist they wanted to be. After the brainstorming sessions, each group’s ideas were tallied and rated for their creativity — that is, the extent to which they were both novel and useful.

“In groups composed of less-creative personalities, pressure to be individualistic stimulated more creativity than pressure to be collectivistic,” the researchers report. In other words, the creatively timid responded to the think-for-yourself directive and came up with more innovative ideas.

In the researchers' words, strongly encouraging independent thinking “within the safe confines of a relatively structured environment” was the catalyst for a certain amount of creative blossoming.

Importantly, this pressure did not boost creativity in the groups composed of very creative personalities. The researchers note that “highly creative people, by their very nature, attempt to stand out and assert their uniqueness.”

Not surprisingly, these natural innovators didn’t respond to the “heavy-handed techniques” employed here. They are, in Goncalo and Duguid’s words, “the lucky few whose creative talent requires no intervention.”

In the researchers’ view, these results suggest that “proven creative talent” should be given “the autonomy to decide for themselves how they behave.” But people who don’t conceive of themselves as creative can benefit from a managerial directive that tells them independent thinking isn’t only acceptable — it’s company policy.

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