We still tend to think of originality and creativity as synonymous, despite countless examples of huge creative breakthroughs that "borrowed" pretty directly from the creations of others (read Adam Gopnik's New Yorker piece on music great Duke Ellington or watch this video on the making of Daft Punk classic, "One More Time"). New research from Indiana University has found that people make greater creative strides when they copy others—and when they work in a crowded field, rather than alone. "We naturally take umbrage when others copy us," says Robert Goldstone, a professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at IU Bloomington. "We don’t [want to] share our salsa recipe or our finger picking technique. But you may be cheating yourself out of the opportunity for finding even better solutions."
To test this hypothesis, the IUB team created a video game called Creature League, modeled on popular computer games like Virtual Pets or Fantasy Football. It works like this: You and your competitor(s) are each given a team of four insanely cute creature icons (i.e. a robot, goldfish, caterpillar, etc.) and a score. You're also given a common pool of creature icons, which you can swap with any of the creatures on your team. The goal is to get the highest possible score, by assembling the best team of creatures.
The catch: you don't know which creature pairing racks up the most points. The other catch: you can see what your competitors are doing and copy them. Thus, if another player discovers that the dino-fish-gorilla-robot combo earns a ton of points, then you can build yourself the exact same team in the next round. Of course, this will prompt your competitor to try and beat you, so he'll tweak his creature team too. If he succeeds, it's only logical that you'll copy him again.
In the end, Goldstone found that scores were higher overall when people had "more imitating choices than innovating choices." But his team also discovered something unexpected. You don't just perform better when you steal other people's work; you perform better when other people steal from you. "When people imitate, they usually tweak the solution," says Goldstone. "And sometimes those tweaks result in an innovation. When that happens, the person who was imitated can go back and imitate the their competitor’s solution."
Goldstone knows that his study raises plenty of ethical and practical concerns. From plagiarism to the large sums that companies spend on R&D, it's obvious why people want to protect their work. "Competing for the same market share and a fear of getting ripped off are real," he says. "But maybe there's too much of a focus on that." More players in the field not only broadens the market but can lead to increased efficiency all around.
Next up for Goldstone's team is a version of Creature League that tests the costs and benefits of intellectual property regulations. In the new scenario, players will be able to patent their creature line-ups and charge competitors who want to use them. Access to the new game isn't available yet, but in the meantime, Goldstone wants your Creature League data. So sign on with some friends, swallow your pride, and start copycatting. Following the crowd is more fun than you think.