I will never forget the first time I presented the bias against creativity paper to a group of senior colleagues. The studies in the paper showed that even though participants overwhelmingly indicated they loved creativity, they could also harbor an unacknowledged bias against embracing it.
When I started the talk I felt confident and prepared. I had taken the advice of all the idea selling gurus – I knew my data cold. I also strategically used an analogy to compare our paper to other successful papers in the creativity literature. The idea selling gurus said that using an analogy to a more familiar idea would help our ideas seem more viable and less bizarre.
Did these strategies work? Quite the contrary - they backfired. Nobody in the audience liked the paper. Most of the grad students looked at me with pity as each professor in the meeting mentioned what they hated about the work. The talk was an utter failure and I felt disheartened, but also humiliated.
Later, a senior colleague pulled me aside and said something that I would never forget. He said “Jen, I’m very open to creativity, so I just don’t think that I would have the bias that you study. I’m not convinced. And I suppose that the paper is really new, but I think it would have been even more impactful if you had linked the implicit bias to the generation of creative ideas.” Now this might sound really reasonable to you – and perhaps it was, but I saw this statement as a great irony. What he told me was akin to saying that my work would have been seen as newer and more impactful if I had stayed within the status quo paradigm (as examining creative idea generation is pretty much the standard thing to study in my field).
When I told my co-author Jack Goncalo, he had a typically brilliant insight. Maybe our idea was good, but the way I was communicating the idea wasn’t. In my talk, I compared the “bias against creativity” to familiar studies in the creativity literature. But our paper broke from the strong paradigm in the creativity literature. So comparing our paper to other creativity papers simply made our paper look like a bad fit to the paradigm of “good” creativity research.
So what if we needed to use a different kind of comparison, an analogy that could distract people from using their strong paradigm to evaluate our work. The analogy should demonstrate the distinctive value of our idea and de-emphasize that our idea was a poor fit with the status quo paradigm of studying creativity.
We included the following analogy in paragraph 2 of our original paper: – “Just as people have deeply rooted biases against people of a certain age, race, or gender that are not necessarily overt (Greenwald & Banaji, 1995), so too can people hold deeply rooted negative views of creativity that are not openly acknowledged.”
We submitted the paper to a journal, Psychological Science, which is extremely selective. Secretly, I wasn’t optimistic. But the paper came back almost immediately with rave reviews and few changes requested and published a month later. The night after the paper became publically available, my phone was ringing off the hook with requests for interviews. Two months later, Jack called to say that our paper had been downloaded 30 thousand times, an unheard of amount for an academic article. And that it was the highest downloaded paper on the Cornell Industrial Labor Relations website.
After we published this paper, I received an overwhelming number of emails from those who felt their creative ideas had been rejected. I started to collect their stories, and realize that people needed a way to help themselves and others overcome this bias against creativity. So I wrote a book, Creative Change, and developed a system of solutions based on the theory to help people self-disrupt their own and others maladaptive mindsets when recognizing creative ideas. I hope we can continue the dialogue about how to embrace creativity. If you send me your stories, I’ll post them on my website (and mask your identity if you wish) so we can all learn to overcome this common and dysfunctional resistance to creative ideas.