I will not choose what many men desire,
Because I will not jump with common spirits
And rank me with the barbarous multitudes.
-- Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice
The need to belong is a fundamental human motive. When people are socially rejected, they make a great effort to conform and regain approval to preserve their self-esteem. Social rejection also has important consequences on well-being, happiness, and intelligence.
At the same time, the need for uniqueness is also a fundamental human motive. When people are treated too similar to others, they (sometimes unconsciously) attempt to do anything to make them stand out. For instance, people who had their uniqueness threatened were quicker to endorse uniqueness-related words and were more likely to express less popular attitudes.
How can this be? How can humans have both the need to belong and the need for uniqueness? Well, humans are complicated! We have lots of motives, many of which frequently conflict with each other. This is why most people try to strike a balance between their various motives, and are satisfied with moderate levels of each motive.
That's most people. Anyone who has ever watched American Idol knows that for some people, the needs scale is tilted much heavier in the direction of uniqueness. This may have implications for creativity.
By definition, creative solutions are unusual, involving the recombination of ideas. Unusual, divergent ideas and access to distant, remote associations are hallmarks of creative thinking. Perhaps those who like to distance themselves from others are more likely to also recruit associations from unusual places and think beyond conventional ideas.
Research supports this idea. The need to be seen as separate from others within a group enhances both nonconformity and creativity. In contrast, an interdependent mindset has been shown to extinguish the spirit of independence that is optimal for producing creative solutions. What's more, those who report a high need for uniqueness make more unconventional word associations, show a greater preference for complex visual figures, and produce more creative drawings and creative stories.
Which raises an intriguing idea: maybe those with a high need for uniqueness are less sensitive to social rejection. Maybe social rejection even fuels their creativity! Indeed, some of the most creative minds of all time have faced very high levels of social rejection and isolation. Of course, it's also possible that the unconventionality of creative people causes them to be social outsiders. The direction of causality is not clear.
Enter a brand new series of studies. Across three studies, Sharon Kim, Lynne Vincent, and Jack Goncalo explicitly rejected participants by telling them they were not selected to be in a group. In another condition, they told participants they would join the group after completing some tasks. After either being rejected or accepted, participants were then given 7 minutes to complete a measure of creativity called the Remote Associations Test (RAT), in which they were asked to find a word that connects three seemingly unrelated words (e.g., fish, mine, and rush; see answer at the end).
In their first study they found that social rejection led to greater creativity. However, those who were rejected and reported a higher reported need for uniqueness performed the best on the creativity test. They found no difference in positive affect for those who were and were not rejected. This isn't that shocking. After all, it's not as if rejection necessarily feels warm and fuzzy! Indeed, the prior work of Roy Baumeister and his colleagues has found that people describe the initial response to rejection as "numbness or lack of feeling".
In a second study, the researchers primed a uniqueness mindset by having people circle pronouns in a vignette as part of a "proofreading" task. The "independent" condition involved the circling of first-person pronouns (e.g., "I", "my"), whereas the "interdependent" version involved the circling of collective pronouns (e.g., "we, "our"). Those primed with the independent self-concept solved more creativity problems correctly following rejection than following inclusion. In contrast, those primed with an interdependent self-concept solved significantly fewer problems correctly following rejection. The priming did not affect performance on the verbal section of the GRE's, however, suggesting the effect really was limited to creativity and not just any kind of problem solving.
In their third and final study, they measured creativity by having people draw creatures from a planet "unlike Earth". They then had raters measure the creativity of the drawings by assessing how much each person diverged from standard Earth animals or humans. Again, those primed with an independent self-concept came up with more creative drawings following rejection than inclusion.
All of these results suggest that rejection may not merely be a result of the unconventionality of creative people but that the actual experience of rejection may promote creativity. What's more, the effects depend on a person's self-concept. For those who are highly invested in belonging to a group by affirming their feelings of independence, rejection may constrain them. But for those scoring sky high in a need for uniqueness, the negative consequences of rejection on creativity may be mitigated and even reversed.
Let's be clear: rejection is not pleasant, even if it can fuel creativity. Which is why it's important to investigate other environmental conditions that can simulate the experience of rejection without actually making the person go through such a painful experience. Thankfully, there is very recent research showing similar effects of divergent thinking when people experience weird things, study abroad and are multicultural. The link between creativity and bilingualism has already been well known.
It clearly can be an advantage being an outsider. As the researchers note, "for the socially rejected, creativity may be the best revenge."
© 2012 by Scott Barry Kaufman.
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Note: The answer to the RAT problem is "gold". Also, hat tip to James C. Kaufman for directing my attention to the study by Kim and colleagues.