Starting a new creative endeavor can be more than daunting.
Beginning to write your first novel? It can feel like everything under the sun has already been written about by someone else—and potentially in a much better way. Trying to set up a new food blog? It can feel like a million other people already did this and it is near impossible to come up with creative new recipes no one has thought of before.
The feeling that one’s own ideas are not particularly original or creative is common among aspiring musicians, painters, photographers, or anybody, really, who relies on their creativity to have a successful career. Sometimes, these doubts can be so nagging that someone does not even start with their project.
There is, however, good news: A new study from Israel that was published in the scientific journal Acta Psychologica now showed that we might be wrong if we think our own ideas are not particularly original or creative (Sidi et al., 2020). In the study, the authors set out to determine how accurate people are in judging the originality of their own ideas.
To this end, they conducted three different experiments with the so-called Divergent Thinking Task. In this psychological task, the participants were shown ten common household items with both their names and a corresponding picture. The items included a brick, a bucket, a shoelace, a sheet protector, an office clip, a shoebox, a wine cork, a hanger, a pillowcase, and a drinking straw. For each item, participants were asked to list as many possible uses. For each use for an item that the participants wrote down, they also had to indicate what they thought which percentage of their peers came up with the same idea. This was done in order to assess how original and creative the participants thought their own ideas were.
In the first experiment, 61 Israeli undergrad students were tested with the Divergent Thinking Task. After all the participants had finished the task, a researcher compared the originality judgments of the participants with the actual percentages of other people that came up with the same idea. The result was quite striking. In general, there was a strong and statically significant bias towards an underestimation of the originality of one’s own ideas. This shows how strongly we tend to underestimate our own creativity, even if nobody else ever had the same idea.
In the second experiment, the scientists used the same task, but this time they told the participants that the average number of answers people give in this task was either two or six. This was done to test to what extent expectations about what other people do in this task would affect originality. Here, the authors found that the group that was told that other people generate on average six ideas in this task generated more ideas than the group that was told that other people generate on average two ideas in this task. Also, the group that thought that other people on average generated six ideas showed more creative and original answers in this task. However, both groups still severely underestimated the creativity of their own ideas, just like in the first experiment.
In the third and last experiment, the authors used the same task again, but this time gave participants false feedback after an initial training phase. Participants were either told that their answers were highly original or highly unoriginal. While the feedback did not affect the actual originality of the ideas, it strongly affected what participants thought about their ideas. Those who had been told that their initial answers were highly original, also assumed their answers in the task were more original than those in the other group did. This shows how much feedback from others affects us, even if there is absolutely no scientific basis for it.
In conclusion, the study showed that we may strongly underestimate how creative and original our ideas are. Moreover, it also indicates that our expectations and feedback from others can strongly affect our judgments about how original we think our ideas are. Importantly, this effect is independent of the actual originality of the ideas.
So, the next time you have an idea and doubt that it might be original enough to lead to a successful project: Go through with it! After all, science indicates that your idea is likely more original than you think it might be.
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Sidi Y, Torgovitsky I, Soibelman D, Miron-Spektor E, Ackerman R. (2020). You may be more original than you think: Predictable biases in self-assessment of originality. Acta Psychol (Amst), 203, 103002.