Outsiders and Creative Thinking | Warhol’s Children

In a 2012 study it was found that social rejection propels creativity for those with an independent self-concept. That is, people who place less of a premium on sharing more similarities with major social groups, rather than opting for a more individualistic approach.

3 studies were conducted. In the first, participants were rejected outright and informed they had to work on their tasks individually. They then indicated how they felt (pretty rejected). In the second rejection was primed by requiring students to circle pronouns (“I”, “my”) and vice versa for the interdependent version (“We”, “our”).

Results showed that the participants who had an independent self-concept, and who were rejected, produced more creative responses for their test, more so than included participants. The final study showed how these variables influence idea generation by completing a space alien drawing — the more the drawing diverted from conventional structures (nose in the middle of the face etc), the more creative. Again, independent thinkers generated more creative drawings following rejection, than following inclusion.

“Rejection relative to inclusion appears to promote feelings of being different from others, allowing them to think more creatively,” the researchers concluded. It is this non-conformity which leads to more creative outcomes. Whereas people who seek group approval long for conformity –put more energy into trying to fit in– the independence that is optimal for producing more creative outcomes is extinguished. Even the way you speak effects creativity.

One small study showed that not being mimicked cues more creative thinking. During a brief conversation, one participant subtly mirrored the non-verbal behaviours of the participants as they spoke. Another participant refrained from any such mirroring. Participants were then required to correctly identify pattern sequences, of which the correct identification is indicative of convergent thinking. Participants who were mimicked correctly identified more patterns, than those who were not mimicked. But why were the results so? It’s because mimicry, as the researchers put it, “is a form of social feedback; it signals that we belong and that we are liked.” And like the study, above, other research has shown that familiarity and social acceptance leads to convergent thinking, while on the flip-side, being on the periphery promotes creative thinking and innovation. While the outsider is commonly chastised, it is the outsider’s view which is a unique one, a “breath of fresh air”. This is why it facilitates creativity.

Living abroad improves creative thinking, in one study it was shown that even by falsely telling participants that a test they were to complete was from Greece, a far-away place, as opposed to telling the other group it was from their home-town, promoted more creative thinking. The evidence is telling us that being on the outside can be good for our creative thinking, and should be viewed in a positive manner.

In The Imitation Game, we see a young Alan Turing cycling around his home-town wearing a gas mask. Unnerving for the local residents, Turing was simply combating his hayfever while cycling around to think through a complex problem. Perhaps it is a fine line, after all, there is a great deal of research which indicates that since highly creative people don’t filter certain information, and tend to process more visual signals than others, it could be why they have more creative ideas — they have more resources and reference points.

Harvard Psychologist Shelley Carson who focuses on the creative mind explains it:  this inability to filter extraneous information is called cognitive disinhibition, which is the failure to ignore information that is supposedly irrelevant to current goals or to survival, but during aha! moments, these cognitive filters relax and allow ideas that are on the brain’s back-burner to leap forward into conscious awareness. At first glance we see mayhem, but upon closer inspection of an outsider’s perspective is a little more ingenious than we give credit for.

Thinking independently — thinking differently — is important for creation – heck that’s why it’s Apple’s tagline. Unique perspectives from unconventionality and eschewing normal social conventions can reward us with ingenious creations. An outsider should be applauded for having the courage to move away from conventionality. After all, how many round pegs do we really need? And if people aren’t going to be nice about it, well, as the researchers from the first study concluded, “for the socially rejected, creativity may be the best revenge.”

This piece originally appear on Warhol’s Children. This piece has been edited.

Image: Get Creative! by JD Hancock/Flickr Commons


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