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The myth of the lone genius

by CIFAR Nov 4 / 13

We tend to see the creative individual as a lonely hero standing apart from the crowd. In fact, creative people are usually right in the middle of the crowd, and depend on it to inspire and validate their creativity, says Alexander Haslam, a Senior Fellow in the Social Interactions, Identity and Well-Being Program (University of Queensland).

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Apple founder Steve Jobs is an iconic creative genius. But even he didn’t do it alone. Photo credit: Creative Commons.

“Psychologically speaking, no one creates alone,” Haslam says. “We all learn from others, and for the most part we create with others in mind – not least because if no one else recognises our creativity it is likely to be ignored.”

In a new paper in Personality and Social Psychology Review, Haslam and colleagues outline what they call the “collective origins of valued originality.” Their idea is that group identities affect what people are going to create and how they are going to create it.

For instance, a painter in the early 20th century surrealist movement would have identified strongly with other surrealists, and reacted against establishment artists. The painter would have tried to paint in creative ways that would be valued by other surrealists, and which might perhaps shock the non-surrealists.

So creativity isn’t just about bucking the establishment. It’s a combination of defying some group norms, and adhering to others. Creative individuals develop their ideas within groups of people who share their vision, and who will appreciate and validate their creativity.

It’s no secret that people are social creatures. But Haslam says that both popular culture and the scientific literature are too focused on the individual aspects of creativity, and ignore the contribution of social identity.

“I think most of the points that we make in the paper can readily be seen in the world at large, and yet most of the literature on creativity wilfully ignores this,” he says.

Even someone like Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple who is often celebrated as a creative genius, didn’t work in a vacuum. He had colleagues who saw the value of his ideas early on, and his work was eventually embraced by millions of people.

In fact, although groups can stifle creativity in some situations, they can also enhance it. Haslam points to CIFAR itself as an organization that enhances creativity by creating the right kinds of groups.

“I think the way CIFAR operates speaks very well to the model we propose,” he says. “First, CIFAR encourages creativity, it doesn’t just say it does. Second, it creates structures which open people’s minds to ideas that come from outside their customary in-group. The CIFAR model in which disparate disciplinary voices are united through a common programme identity is critical to overcoming this.

“Until I came to CIFAR I had never met an economist who took my ideas seriously; and I in turn had always thought economics a completely barren discipline. Now some of my closest collaborators are economists, and I think, through the programme we are helping to change the minds of others.”