Does Fear Trigger Me-Too Innovation?

May 20, 2022

Everyone values creativity and wants to be surrounded by innovative people. At least, that is what most of us say. The virtue is heavily promoted in business and features prominently on many a motivational poster. It seems that subconsciously, though, the uncertainty inherent in creative solutions makes people sick. This conclusion comes courtesy of the New York Times‘ article, “We Have a Creativity Problem.” The article tells us:

“Creativity is lauded as vital, and seen as the lifeblood of great entertainment, innovation, progress and forward-thinking ideas. Who doesn’t want to be creative or to hire inventive employees? But the emerging science of implicit bias has revealed that what people say about creativity isn’t necessarily how they feel about it. Research has found that we actually harbor an aversion to creators and creativity; subconsciously, we see creativity as noxious and disruptive, and as a recent study demonstrated, this bias can potentially discourage us from undertaking an innovative project or hiring a creative employee. ‘People actually have strong associations between the concept of creativity and other negative associations like vomit and poison,’ said Jack Goncalo, a business professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the lead author on the new study. ‘Agony was another one.'”

Yikes. The piece looks at a pair of studies that measured subjects’ conscious and unconscious responses to creativity. The recent one referenced above examines attitudes toward creative workers. (Apparently it makes a difference whether one is working on sneakers or sex toys.) Another done in 2012, led by the University of San Diego’s Jennifer Mueller, explored participants’ conscious responses to questions about creativity and their implicit bias on the topic. Researchers introduced an element of real-world uncertainty to some of the subjects and found those respondents cringed even more at creative concepts. See the article for descriptions of each study’s methodology. The write-up notes:

“’Leaders will say, “We’re innovative,” and employees say, “Here’s an idea,” and the idea goes nowhere,’ Dr. Mueller said. ‘Then employees are angry.’ But, she said, the people invested in the status quo have plenty of incentive not to change. ‘Novel ideas have almost no upside for a middle manager — almost none,’ she said. ‘The goal of a middle manager is meeting metrics of an existing paradigm.’ That creates another conundrum, the researchers noted, because people in uncertain circumstances may really need a creative solution and yet have trouble accepting it.”

Yes, that is quite the paradox. Perhaps we should all consider whether an unconscious bias against innovative solutions is hindering us and our teams.

Cynthia Murrell, May 20, 2022


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