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January 3, 2014

History celebrates creativity, but what's the condition of the creative individual in his own time? The reality appears to be much more like Cassandra, who had the gift of prophecy, but the curse of never being believed. There's also the Biblical quotation in Mark 6:4 that "A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and among his own relatives and in his own household."

Cassandra of TroyCassandra

Cassandra foretold the fall of Troy.

No one would believe her, since the god, Apollo, cursed her so that her prophesies were never believed.

(Portion of an 1898 illustration by Evelyn De Morgan (1855–1919), via Wikimedia Commons.)

People generally prefer the tried-and-true to the truly novel. One of my own experiences in this regard was when I was taking a solid geometry course as a senior in high school. Our first test asked for the proof of some simple theorem. I answered with a proof that wasn't the example given in our textbook, and the proof was marked wrong by the teacher. I dropped the course that same day.

One example in science of how far people will go to preserve the old, rather than attempt something new, is the geocentric model of the solar system. The original model had the planets and the Sun move in perfect circles around the Earth. When the actual orbits were found to deviate from circles, and planets were even seen to move in a retrograde fashion, a change was needed.

In order keep geocentrism, the Ptolomaic model was proposed. In that model, there was still the notion of perfect circular motion, but ancient astronomers introduced epicycles, which were circular orbits about other circular orbits. One modern astronomer remarked that if Copernicus hadn't come along, we would be reading papers about eighteen epicycle fits to the orbit of Jupiter.

Now that we have ubiquitous computing, there's a trend in which an answer is more important than a solution. In the old model of scientific knowledge, theory guided experiment, which guided better theory. Today, many technology companies are satisfied with developing heuristics, such as the design of experiments methodology (DOE), rather than theory. A few graphs generated by multidimensional linear regression is today's true path to knowledge.

Creativity was always supposed to derive from the efforts of an individual. I gave the example of Copernicus, above, and we have the recent examples of Einstein, Bohr, and the many physicists who created modern physics. In my career in industrial research, my role shifted from an individual contributor to one of "project leader" or "project member" on team efforts. Invention was made by a team, not by an individual.

As it turns out, team invention is actually better. A study that looked at a half million inventions found that
"Individuals working alone, especially those without affiliation to organizations, are less likely to achieve breakthroughs and more likely to invent particularly poor outcomes."[1]
The broader experience base of a team helps in creating breakthroughs, although its true worth is in discarding bad solutions.[1]

A recent study of US and Japanese patents found that the team approach works well only when the team is fresh. Team performance on invention degrades with repeat collaboration, and the study authors suggest that this effect may be true when teams collaborate on other creative projects.[2]
 Drawing of Thomas Alva EdisonAlthough Thomas Edison (pictured) made a point of being the sole named inventor on many patents, such inventions were usually the work of a huge technical team.

(Illustration from The New Student's Reference Work, Chandler B. Beach and Frank Morton Mcmurry, Eds., F. E. Compton And Company (Chicago, 1914), via Wikimedia Commons.)

In our affluent society, creativity is valued as a means of inventing the next electronic gizmo; but, the original purpose of creativity, and perhaps the reason why we've evolved to invent such devices, is its survival advantage. It's apparent that there was an uptick in creativity about 50,000 years ago in the Upper Palaeolithic Revolution, which finally went into overdrive in the Neolithic Revolution.

During the Neolithic, innovation in the cultivation and storage of food transformed human society from its hunter-gatherer existence to a diverse society that included tradesmen and artisans. A recent computational model suggests that the rise in human creativity came about through the capacity for recursive recall; that is, single step activities became chained into more complex activities.[3]

Although creativity has had an apparent evolutionary advantage, people still reject the creative for the tried-and-true. Jessica Olien, in a recent article in Slate,[4] references an article in Psychological Science that seeks to explain why this is true. The full text of Psychological Science article, "The Bias Against Creativity - Why People Desire but Reject Creative Ideas," by Jennifer S. Mueller, now at the University of San Diego, Shimul Melwani of the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill, NC), and Jack A. Goncalo of Cornell University (Ithaca, New York), is freely available online.[5]

According to their paper, people reject creative solutions since they have an unconscious desire to minimize risk. Creative individuals must hurdle this concealed barrier if they want their innovative ideas to be accepted.[5] In her Slate article, Olien makes extended reference to a 1995 paper on the rejection of creativity by Barry M. Staw, Lorraine Tyson Mitchell Chair in Leadership and Communication of the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley.[6]

As Staw writes, we don't celebrate creative individuals, we celebrate the successful creative individuals. When your iPhone is in hand, it's easy to celebrate Steve Jobs. Most people are "satisfiers," rather than searchers for optimal solutions. They see that most scientists are in the practice of what Thomas Kuhn called "normal science," which is not very exciting stuff, so they choose not to become scientists.[6]

The reason why there are few creative people in corporations is because they have personality traits that are selected-out. In the mindset of the manager and human resources department, it's better to weed these people out early, so there won't be any trouble. However, the problem such corporations face is that they manufacture market-safe products in a world filled with other similar products. Says Staw, "...innovation requires investing in losers as well as winners..."[6]

Number 124 in Maxims for Revolutionists (1903) by London School of Economics co-founder, George Bernard Shaw, is the following:
"The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man."


  1. J. Singh and L. Fleming, "Lone Inventors as Sources of Breakthroughs: Myth or Reality?" Management Science, vol. 56, no. 1 (January, 2010), pp. 41-56.
  2. Hiroyasu Inoue and Yang-Yu Liu, "Revealing the intricate effect of collaboration on innovation," arXiv Preprint Server, September 9, 2013.
  3. Liane Gabora and Steve DiPaola, "How Did Humans Become So Creative? A Computational Approach," arXiv Preprint Server, August 23, 2013.
  4. Jessica Olien, "Inside the Box - People don't actually like creativity," Slate, December 6, 2013.
  5. Jennifer S. Mueller, Shimul Melwani and Jack A. Goncalo, "The Bias Against Creativity - Why People Desire but Reject Creative Ideas," Psychological Science, vol. 23, no. 1 (January, 2012), pp. 13-17; available, also, here.
  6. Barry M. Staw, "Why No One Really Wants Creativity," in Creative Action in Organizations - Ivory Tower Visions and Real Voices, Cameron Ford and Dennis Gioia, Eds., Sage Publications, 1995, pp. 161-166 (PDF File).

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