Are conservatives less creative than liberals?

Obama's election may mean spurred creativity for the nation

Posted Nov 05, 2008

  

Barack Obama is the new President-elect of the United States. The significance of this cannot possibly be overstated. While certainly this is a historic moment because it raises the bar of what African Americans can aspire to, and takes us one step closer to equality in American, I'd like to focus on a potentially overlooked outcome of this historical moment: America will become more creative.

This is because Obama represents many of the core liberal values that promote creativity and innovation. In fact, we may soon see something similar to what Psychologist and Politcal Scientist Jay Seitz observed during the 17th century rise of liberalism when he noted that the rise "fostered creative production by encouraging individual creative expression."

And this is something sorely needed in our country at the moment. Today, Proposition 8 was passed in California, banning gay marriage. This bill is a serious threat to individuality. Of course, change won't happen overnight. But with Obama, change is on its way.

How can I be so optimistic that Obama, and the new liberalism he will bring to the White House will spur creativity and increase our appreciation for individuality in America? Surely this is my subjective spin. But is it?

New research suggests that I may be right.

We already know from prior studies that conservatives prefer simple representational art over abstract art, traditional poetry over the avant-garde, and music that is simple, familiar, and 'safe'.

But what about when it comes to engagement in creative behaviors and actual creative ability? Are conservatives less creative than liberals?

Psychologist Stephen J. Dollinger assessed the creative behaviors and products of 426 undergraduates. For behavior, he assessed engagement in various creative activities, spanning the domains of visual arts, literary arts, performance, and crafts.

For creativity, he had participants complete an incomplete figure in any way they liked. The figures had already been started by an artist. Each drawing was then rated by three MFA graduate students on the quality of the details as well as the overall creative impression.

He also had participants take photos, and write essays on how each photo represented themselves. These photos were judged by psychologists for the degree of individuality inherent in the essays. Interestingly, prior research has shown these ratings predict performance on other creativity measures as much as seven years later!

For both creativity tasks, the judges agreed highly with each other on the creativity of the products.

Dollinger also administered measures of vocabulary and openness to experience, since each of these have shown linkages to creativity in prior studies. A sample openness item is "likes to reflect, play with ideas."

Finally, and most importantly, Dollinger also assessed whether the students favored, opposed, or held a neutral view on the following issues:

Death penalty, Multiculturalism, Stiffer jail terms, Voluntary euthanasia, Bible truth, Gay rights, Pre-marital virginity, Immigration of foreigners, Church authority, Legalized abortion, Condom vending machines, Legalized prostitution

He found that compared to liberals, those endorsing more conservative positions had fewer creative accomplishments, and produced photo essays and drawings that were judged as less creative (although statistically significant, note that the effect sizes weren't huge). Even taking into account the vocabulary and openness to experience of each participant, the results for drawing products and creative behaviors still held up. Interestingly, he also found that those who were more conservative did worse on the vocabulary test and were less open to experience.

What can explain these findings?

This study suggests that conservatives are indeed less creative than liberals. Why could this be? Dollinger proposes various potential explanations. First, conservatives may have found the ambiguity of the creativity tasks threatening, and the anxiety associated with this sense of threat may have hindered the expression of creativity. Prior research has indeed shown that those that are more conservative have lower cognitive-complexity and therefore may dislike amniguity more than those who are less conservative.

As Dollinger suggests, it would be interesting to evaluate the immediate affective responses of high and low conservative students as they encounter tasks that are explicitly described as "creativity tests". Someone should do that study.

Another explanation is that conservatives are more inclined to follow convention in general. And of course, convention sounds the death knell for creativity. A related possibility is that the authoritarian and anti-hedonistic aspects of conservatism may cause imagination to be devalued amongst conservatives. It is interesting to note that in support of this hypothesis, Dollinger did find that conservatives in the study scored lower on openness to experience.

Another intriguing possibility presented itself in this study. Dollinger checked out the actual photo essays that his participants produced and noticed that the conservative students' photo essays were generally "wholesome" and indicted a satisfaction with their lives, including their family lives (religiosity was also a common theme). In contrast, liberal students' photo essays were related to "boundary-crossing behaviors", creative energy, and the unconventional exercise of their civil liberties.

As I've argued in my recent article Confessions of a Late Bloomer (check out the latest issue of Psychology Today), trauma or family conflict in childhood can be a major driving force for creativity. So can discontent with the established order. This study suggests that this driving force may be missing in conservatives.

Of course, these findings may not generalize beyond American college students who were receiving extra credit to produce creative products. As Dollinger notes, many of the students in the sample weren't able to vote yet, and they may not yet have well-formulated political ideas. Also, as college students, they may not have fully had time to engage in creative pursuits. Interestingly, and in support of this idea, Dollinger found that that the relationship between conservatism and engagement in creative behaviors was much higher among participants in the 25-53 age range than participants in the 18-24 age range.

Also, it's unclear how much these findings generalize to all forms of creativity. Perhaps conservatives are better at other domains not sampled in Dollinger's study. That's an interesting question that should be studied.

"Change is gonna come"

There are many reasons why change is gonna come with Obama as President of the United States. In addition to his intelligence and open mindedness, I add to the list his creativity and appreciation for human individuality. Being a liberal, many of his core values are the opposite of those that define a conservative outlook. I look forward to the creative times ahead.

© 2008 by Scott Barry Kaufman 

References

Dollinger, S.J. (2003) Creativity and conservatism. Personality and Individual Differences, 43, 1025-1035. [pdf]

Gillies, J., & Campbell, S. (1985). Conservatism and poetry preferences. British Journal of Social Psychology, 24, 223-227. 

Glasgow, M.R., & Cartier, A.M. (1985). Conservatism, sensation-seeking, and music preferences. Personality and Individual Differences, 6, 395-396. [pdf]

Henningham, J.P. (1996). A 12-item scale of social conservatism. Personality and Individual Differences, 20,517-519. [pdf]

Hinze, T., Doster, J., & Joe, V.C. (1997). The relationship of conservatism and cognitive-complexity.Personality and Individual Differences, 22, 297-298. [pdf]

Seitz, J.A. (2003). The political economy of creativity. Creativity Research Journal, 15, 385-392. [pdf]

Wilson, G.D., Ausman, J., & Matthews, T.R. (1973). Conservatism and art preferences. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 25, 286-288. [pdf]

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