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Creativity and the Fear of Social Exclusion

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Recently, I heard the author Malcolm Gladwell interview former professional basketball star, Rick Barry. Over his fifteen-year career, Barry’s free throw percentage was 89.3 per cent, making his shooting percentage first all-time in the ABA, fourth all-time in the NBA, and seventh all-time across both leagues. He attributed his success to his innovative approach to shooting free throws. Barry applied an underhand style, what some have a called a ‘granny’ or ‘potty’ shot.

Despite the efficacy of this shooting style, he was only able to persuade one other player to change his shot. According to Gladwell, only two players in the US shoot their free throws in this style. One is from Nigeria, and the other is Barry’s son. So, why the reluctance, even when we know it’s a more effective shot?

Gladwell explained it using sociologist Mark Granovetter’s Threshold Model of Collective Behaviour, which holds that engaging in the behaviour is dependent upon how many other people engage in that behaviour, and there is a threshold for this number. It’s an interesting explanation, but the theory doesn’t explain why Barry engaged in this behaviour; it’s not predictive in terms of who will engage in the activity.

We can explore another theory from social and evolutionary psychology to explain this type of behaviour: fear of social exclusion.

Fear of social exclusion (FOSE), whether perceived or non-conscious, keeps us from adopting innovative and creative practices and ideas. In the interview, Barry recalls his initial reaction to the new approach:

‘I said: Dad (I always remember it, and I tell people), they’re going to make fun of me. That’s the way the girls shoot. I can’t do that.’ He said: ‘Son (and I remember this so clearly like it was yesterday), they can’t make fun of you if you’re making them.’

‘And the first game I remember where I did it, it was on the road in Scotch Plains, New Jersey. I shot the free throw. The guy in the stands yells out: ‘Hey Barry, you big sissy, shooting like that! And the guy next to him – and I heard him very clearly – he says: ‘What are you making fun of him for? He doesn’t miss.’

‘So my dad’s prophecy came true. And I was cool from that point forward. So I didn’t care any more what they said. If I’m making ’em, that’s all that really matters.’

Something Barry states in that final paragraph – ‘I didn’t care any more what they said,’ – is integral to understanding why someone is willing to flout convention. This is a key aspect of Barry’s adoption of this innovative idea – he no longer feared social isolation. He simply didn’t care. You can also view an example of this attitude in a lecture by Chef David Chang on how his restaurants became so successful. I like to call this lack of FOSE as the honey badger mindset. The honey badger just doesn’t care.

At the time of writing, a search for books on creativity on Amazon results in over 35,000 books on the topic, with the majority of these books addressing creativity from an attributional approach – individual characteristics necessary to be creative, rather than a systems approach; the influence of social factors on innovation. In order to understand more fully the obstacles to creativity and innovation, it is important that we consider the social influences on these processes.

Nearly 20 years ago, the call went out for a systems approach to creativity, which had largely been ignored in favour of the attributional approach. Researchers have demonstrated a negative bias against creativity when the introduction of an innovative idea was perceived as uncertain. Several studies have found correlations between certain types of mental illness and creativity (but no causal relation). One study found that creative individuals were viewed as deviant. Another study found that during group decision-making, group members disliked deviant members and rated morale lower despite increased innovation and creativity. Those who are exposed to innovation often view it with suspicion or outright hostility as a function of innovation resistance, researchers have found.

Researchers have reported the existence of a negative bias against creativity when individuals experienced uncertainty and that this bias interfered with their ability to recognise creative ideas. The results revealed a latent barrier that creative individuals might encounter in their attempts to gain acceptance for novel ideas and products. Additionally, the process of developing creative ideas dictates that creative individuals will fail often and face uncertainty regarding if and when they will discover a solution. The body of research supports the notion of the aspect of a sociocultural aspect of the perception of creativity and creative individuals.

Despite the benefits that accrue from innovation, it is reasonable to speculate that individuals, either consciously or non-consciously, may attempt to avoid uncertainty and externalising behaviour that would identify them as creative. By doing so, they increase the sense of in-group inclusion and decrease their own FOSE. Given the negative bias toward novel ideas and creative individuals, it is necessary to understand the orientations individuals adopt regarding creative tendencies and divergent thinking styles.

My own research revealed a factor supporting the notion that creativity threatens the stability of the in-group, thereby influencing individuals to adopt a negative bias toward creativity and influencing individuals not to identify as creative. I refer to it as creative aversion. Based on this evidence, we can predict that otherwise creative individuals, either consciously or not, will avoid creative or divergent thinking as an adaptive function to avoid being identified as creative or innovative for fear of social exclusion.

It’s interesting to note that researchers found that after a small dose of psilocybin, participants experienced social exclusion as less stressful. Another study from Amsterdam found that it inhibits ego dissolution – the perception that the boundary that separates one from the rest of the world is dissolved. Yet another study found that regular marijuana users are less sensitive to social exclusion than individuals who do not partake. So, it may not be that ingesting LSD or cannabis makes one more creative, but more accurately that it suppresses the FOSE, allowing individuals to engage in creative ideation.

If we hypothesise that FOSE is an evolutionary mechanism to maintain in-group cohesion and safety for individuals, we might expect to see more women than men being influenced by FOSE. Historically, being the primary care-giving parent during early childhood, females who do not adopt the FOSE risk cutting themselves off from the support group of other females within a social circle during critical parenting periods. It would therefore explain higher creativity by males, in part, because men have less to risk if they are socially excluded (other factors would include the disproportion of men to women in overseeing the means to produce creative ideas and products). So it may well be that men are no more attributed with creative and innovative ideation, they simply, on average, do not present the level of FOSE that women, on average, do. Several studies that measured gender differences in FOSE have supported this hypothesis.

It is time to explore the construct of creativity across a broader, social context. By doing so, we may be better positioned to develop social environments (school, work, community) that influence creativity and innovation, the honey badger mindset, in a more productive, less threatening, approach.

Scott Furtwengler, PhD is the Director of Institutional Research at Brazosport College in Lake Jackson, Texas. 


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