Desired, Then Rejected: The Bias Against Creativity
Take a look at any modern business book and
you’ll soon see creativity quite rightly lauded as a key business advantage. It
is the must-have ingredient for success in today’s disrupted world.
Within the marketing sector, the IPA has undertaken research that states that creative work is 12 times more effective. The world-renowned Cannes Lions event is promoted as a ‘Festival of Creativity’ and heavily pushes the ‘Case for Creativity’, demonstrating a clear link between award-winning creative marketing and a positive impact on share price.
With all this championing of creativity it would seem only natural to assume we all instinctively know the importance of creativity, and why we should nurture it. Count how many times this week you hear the rallying cry to be more creative, and how we can’t stand in its way.
Except that’s what we do.
There is a subconscious bias against creativity. For as much as we desire it, we actually reject it.
The paper ‘The Bias Against Creativity’ from Cornell University describes how the deep-seated reaction to creativity is often equated as poison, vomit and agony. Yes that’s right: POISON, VOMIT and AGONY. Hardly a response you’d associate with such a supposed positive business driver, but to many that’s what creativity actually means and feels like.
You see, for all that businesses want creativity, and they want it bad - the pain of getting it is often too much. Or put more scientifically ‘people experience a motivation to reduce uncertainty’.
The key explanation for this paradox is that high quality creativity is strongly associated with being ‘novel’ and it’s this very newness, the real driving benefit, that scares us to the core.
Once you’re aware of this bias, you see it everywhere.
In fact, one of the suggested topics for this post was ‘are we confusing novelty with creativity, and is it getting in the way of good advertising?’ Which is the very same prejudice in action. By the way, the answer to that specific question is that the creative advertising that outperforms is by its very definition ‘novel’.
The result of this bias in non-severe cases is a retreat back to the comfortable known, to small or zero improvements in the sum total. However repeated rejections quickly lead to a paralysis or outright destruction.
For example, it’s common for modern procurement teams to be rewarded with a percentage of the saving they manage to negotiate, often on the very creative services the organization needs to invest in to help guarantee its future prosperity. Ironically these savings are directly hurting the chances of the organization’s survival.
Popular business topics of risk management and optimization make processes, teams and environments ‘brittle’. This brittleness is a result of optimizing everything, to eke out the last drop of perceived value. These optimizations can only work until things change - which they invariably do - causing significant drops in growth. The removal of opportunity for error, imagination, serendipity and evolution, strips key elements of creative development away.
This very real tension between the desire for creativity on paper and its rejection in practice is even prevalent in organizations that purport to champion creativity. How many times have you heard a client call for real creative thinking only to select the soft option, or a creative agency boss cajoling for better work, only to nix anything that looked to threaten the immediate gross margin target? Be honest now.
In a publication for the Harvard Business Review, Yonugme Moon collects many of the phrases externalized by this bias, to form an anti-creativity checklist. You‘ll quickly recognize many of them, and – again, be honest - you have probably uttered plenty. Stop it and stop anyone else who does.
I particularly recoil at the phrase “Be the
tough guy, demand to see the data” from the original version. The obvious problem
is it’s hard to get data on something that’s never been done before. Perhaps that
data point is the key signifier here!
If you’re selling creativity, don’t let the bias pull you down. Really believe in what you do, and let your innate bias be banished by the fact that real creativity out-performs.
If you’re buying creative, remember it’s what you are buying when the going looks risky or gets uncertain. Turning back might be necessary, but ensure you come forward again - and further - unless you want to buy boring.
Without embracing creativity you simply won’t evolve successfully, unless you’re a cockroach of course. I wonder how many organizations describe themselves as cockroaches when asked to pick an animal to represent them… Yeah, thought not.
Simon Gill is Chief Creative Officer, UK, DigitasLBi