Are you a recovering high school geek who still can’t get the girl? Are you always the last person picked for your company’s softball team? When you watched Office Space, did you feel a special kinship to the stapler-obsessed Milton Waddams? If you answered yes to any of these questions, do not despair. Researchers at Johns Hopkins and Cornell have recently found that the socially rejected might also be society’s most creatively powerful people.
The study, which is forthcoming in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, is called “Outside Advantage: Can Social Rejection Fuel Creative Thought?” It found that people who already have a strong “self-concept”—i.e. are independently minded—become creatively fecund in the face of rejection. “We were inspired by the stories of highly creative individuals like Steve Jobs and Lady Gaga,” says the study’s lead author, Hopkins professor Sharon Kim. “And we wanted to find a silver lining in all the popular press about bullying. There are benefits to being different.”
The study consisted of 200 Cornell students and set out to identify the relationship between the strength of an individual’s self-concept and their level of creativity. First, Kim tested the strength of each student’s self-concept by assessing his or her “need for uniqueness.” In other words, how important it is for each individual to feel separate from the crowd. Next, students were told that they’d either been included in or rejected from a hypothetical group project. Finally, they were given a simple, but creatively demanding, task: Draw an alien from a planet unlike earth.
If you’re curious about your own general creativity level (at least by the standards of Kim’s study), go ahead and sketch an alien right now…Okay, got your alien? Now give yourself a point for every non-human characteristic you’ve included in the drawing. If your alien has two eyes between the nose and forehead, you don’t get any points. If your alien has two eyes below the mouth, or three eyes that breathe fire, you get a point. If your alien doesn’t even have eyes or a mouth, give yourself a bunch of points. In short, the more dissimilar your alien is to a human, the higher your creativity score.
Kim found that people with a strong self-concept who were rejected produced more creative aliens than people from any other group, including people with a strong self-concept who were accepted. “If you’re in a mindset where you don’t care what others think,” she explained, “you’re open to ideas that you may not be open to if you’re concerned about what other people are thinking.”
This may seem like an obvious conclusion, but Kim pointed out that most companies don’t encourage the kind of freedom and independence that readers of Fast Company probably expect. “The benefits of being different is not a message everyone is getting,” she said.
But Kim also discovered something unexpected. People with a weak self-concept could be influenced toward a stronger one and, thus, toward a more creative mindset. In one part of the study, students were asked to read a short story in which all the pronouns were either singular (I/me) or plural (we/us) and then to circle all the pronouns. They were then “accepted” or “rejected” and asked to draw their aliens.
Kim found that all of the students who read stories with singular pronouns and were rejected produced more creative aliens. Even the students who originally had a weaker self-concept. Once these group-oriented individuals focused on individual-centric prose, they became more individualized themselves. And that made them more creative.
This finding doesn’t prove that you can teach someone to have a strong self-concept but it suggests that you can create a professional environment that facilitates independent and creative thought.
“I’ve read article after article about how organizations want creative people,” Kim says. “But it appears to me that all companies want candidates from the same schools, with the same background, and the same experiences.” Kim hopes her study will have an impact on how companies think about who they hire, how they can retain the most creative individuals, and whether they’re really facilitating creative thinking among their employees. She says even small changes, like relaxing a dress code, can help.
Of course, there’s an irony here. If creativity depends on rejection, then companies would want to make it more difficult for employees to individuate, not less. Kim isn’t so worried about this outcome, however. “Even in a company where you feel happy, there are still plenty of opportunities to be rejected,” she says. “You can still pitch that great idea to your boss and your boss will say, ‘um, no.’”