When you watch movies about high school, certain stereotypes repeat. The football players hang around in packs wearing their letter jackets with cheerleaders hanging off their arms. The science nerds sit quietly in the cafeteria eating lunch hoping nobody notices them. And the artists sit by themselves—at a distance from all of this social interaction—watching the world go by.
This scene reinforces a stereotype that there is a relationship between creativity and being rejected by society. Of course, even if this relationship exists, it is hard to know the direction it goes. It is possible that people who are truly creative are rejected by others, because their ideas go against the norm. It is also possible tat something about social rejection fuels creativity.
This issue was explored in an interesting paper by Sharon Kim, Lynne Vincent, and Jack Goncalo in the August, 2013 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. They suggest that social rejection can make some people more creative.
In particular, people differ in how strongly they prize independence. Some people really want to see themselves as unique and different from everyone else. Other people get a lot of their energy from being part of a group. The more independent people are, the more that social rejection can actually make them more creative.
In one study, the authors measured people’s need to feel unique using a questionnaire. Then, participants were brought to the lab with five other people and were told that some would be selected for a group exercise, while others would work alone. They filled out a description of themselves. Some people were told that they were rejected from the group and would perform tasks alone. Other people were told that they were accepted into the group and would join the group right after doing some tasks.
In this first study, participants then did the remote associates test (RAT), which has been used as a measure of creativity. In the RAT, people see three words (like SALT DEEP and FOAM) and they have to select a word that goes with all three of these words (in this case, SEA). Doing well on this test requires people to think divergently.
The authors found an interaction between social rejection and people’s need to feel unique. For people with a low need to feel unique, rejection had no influence on their scores on the remote associates test. For people with a high need to feel unique, though, they got more correct answers on the RAT following rejection than following acceptance into a group.
In a second study, the researchers manipulated people’s need to feel unique using a procedure that has been employed in other studies. Participants read a passage and were asked to circle the pronouns. For some people, the pronouns were first-person singular (I and me). For other people the pronouns were first-person plural (we and our). Participants who circle singular pronouns are more focused on being independent than those who circle plural pronouns. After that, the rejection manipulation and RAT were done as before. The people primed to be independent who were rejected scored best on the RAT of all the groups. Once again, being independent and being socially rejected led to creativity.
A third study repeated the one I just described with the manipulations of independence and rejection, but used a different measure of creativity. This group was asked to draw alien creatures from a planet not like Earth. This task has been used by Tom Ward and his colleagues in the past as a measure of creativity. The drawings were then judged for their creativity. The group that was primed for independence and was socially rejected also made the most creative drawings.
What is going on here?
When people are part of a group or want to be part of a group, then there is social pressure for people’s ideas to conform to those of the people around them. This conformity makes people less creative, because it decreases the value they put on divergent thinking. When people are motivated to be independent, though, then having unique ideas further reinforces that independence. The combination of a mindset to be independent and some social rejection is one way to spur this mindset.