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August 11, 2020

Why you underestimate your creativity (and how to unearth your best ideas)

Daily Briefing

    *Editor's note: This story has been updated to include the names of the study's lead researchers. 

    People often underestimate the creativity and originality of their own ideas, according to a recently published study—but there are ways to unearth these "potential gems" of creativity, Ella Miron Spektor, an associate professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD and a lead researcher of the study, writes. 

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    People assume they're unoriginal

    For the study, published in the journal Acta Psychologica, Miron-Spektor and fellow lead researchers Yael Sidi of The Open University Israel, Ilan Torgovitsky and Rakefet Ackerman of Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, and Daniela Soibelman of performed three experiments using an idea generation task that mimics the real-life ideation process.

    For the first experiment, the researchers asked 61 undergraduate students to look at 10 different household items and list all their possible uses. "This classic task enabled us to assess the number of ideas generated and their originality," Miron-Spektor writes.

    During the experiment, researchers asked the participants to estimate, for each new use they brainstormed, how many of their peers came up with similar uses. Then, the researchers quantified how original each idea was by assessing how many times other participants came up with the same use case. The less common the idea was, the more original the researchers labeled it.

    In the end, the researchers found the students "systematically underestimated the originality of their own ideas." In addition, the participants seemed attuned to the "serial order effect," which holds that the first ideas we think of tend to be the least original, while ideas developed later in the process are likely more unique. According to the study, students "judged the ideas they produced further along the ideation process to be more original than those that came before," Miron-Spektor writes.

    For the second experiment, the researchers recruited 101 participants to do the same task, but the participants this time were split into two groups. The researchers gave one group a low anchor, meaning they told the participants the average number of answers given during the task was two, and the other group a high anchor by telling them the average was six. The researchers found that, not only did both groups underestimate the originality of their ideas, but the high-anchor group—despite coming up with more ideas—tended to more greatly underestimate their originality than the low-anchor group.

    For the final experiment, researchers tried to reduce this bias by giving 96 participants false feedback that their answers were either highly original or highly unoriginal. "The false feedback strongly affected what participants thought about their ideas, without affecting the originality or quantity of their ideas," Miron-Spektor writes.

    Acknowledging your originality

    According to Miron-Spektor, the research "suggests that we may be wrong when we feel that our ideas are not original enough," leading us to "cast off promising ideas and invest needless effort searching for better ones."

    Miron-Spektor hypothesizes that this tendency may stem from the "false consensus effect." She explains, "Creativity is context-dependent: An idea that might be original in one field or market could be ordinary in another." Therefore, when we don't know anything about the "competition," we fall into the false consensus effect—assuming that others think just like we do—and preemptively dismiss our own ideas, she writes.

    So how can we utilize the findings? Miron-Spektor says her research can help people recognize that even their first ideas could be "some potential gems." In the workplace, for instance, managers should "make it a point to invite your team members to share their ideas which may otherwise never see the light of day because they assume their ideas are not innovative enough," she writes. "By acknowledging their creativity, you can reduce their bias, at least to some extent."

    Miron-Spektor adds that acknowledging our originality can be particularly helpful during the novel coronavirus pandemic, when many of us are spending a disproportionate amount of time at home. According to Miron-Spektor, one woman who works as a therapist decided to offer communications consulting to other therapists who wanted to move their practices online during the pandemic. "If she had listened to her self-doubts thinking that 'everyone is probably doing it,' she might not have carved out her new niche," she writes. "Rarely has there been a more urgent need for people to be creative and, crucially, to be aware of their originality than in these challenging times" (Miron-Spektor, INSEAD, 6/4).

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