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True Originality in Creative Work Is Rare

HBO's "Mare of Easttown" feels like a rehash of other shows. So what?

Key points

  • Subjects who were asked to draw an alien totally different from Earth aliens still drew creatures with lots of familiar features.
  • Subjects told to make something different from examples made things that were more similar to the examples than subjects who never saw them.
  • Studies like these suggest that remixing and recombination is a common approach to creativity.
"Mare of Easttown".
Source: HBO

HBO's Mare of Easttown tells the story of detective Mare Sheehan (played by Kate Winslet) investigating the murder of a teenage girl in a small town outside of Philadelphia, while she wrestles with her own family drama and personal demons. (The final episode of the limited series airs this Sunday; all previous episodes can be streamed on HBO Max.)

My initial reaction to the show was that I'd seen it all before. The whole thing feels like a remix of serialized small-town murder mysteries of years past, seemingly lifting whole story elements directly from other excellent series like Broadchurch, Top of the Lake, and Happy Valley. And yet, I found myself not caring. The series still felt fresh and engrossing. This is partly due to Winslet's great performance as the world-weary detective Mare. But also, the truth is that few things are entirely new. And sometimes, taking an old idea and putting it in a new context, a new setting, or combining it with something else can make it seem new again.

This thought reminded me of some of my favorite research on creativity by psychologist Thomas Ward. In several studies, he found that, even with minimal constraints on what people could create, people’s creations were, well, not very creative. But that doesn't mean they weren't original.

It turns out that people aren't that imaginative

For example, in one classic study, published in 1994, he conducted a series of experiments in which he asked college students to imagine creatures that might inhabit another planet that was "very different from Earth" and draw them. In his first experiment, 37 students were given no other instructions than these. Some examples of their imagined creatures are shown below.

Ward (1994)
Examples of creatures drawn by subjects in Ward's (1994) Experiment 1.
Source: Ward (1994)

While a majority of subjects (65%) created creatures with at least one feature that Ward classified as "unusual," or different from most animals on Earth, like wheels for feet or having a mouth higher than eyes, the creatures were overwhelmingly pretty familiar-looking: 89% of the creatures were symmetrical, 92% had at least one sensory organ, and 78% had legs (with 65% having a typical number of legs—two or four).

Ward repeated this first experiment with 180 new students but added three additional conditions: subjects in these conditions were told that the creature they were creating either had feathers, was furry, or lived in water and had scales. He found that the creatures subjects created were strongly informed by their existing knowledge: they were more likely to draw a creature with wings if it had feathers, more likely to draw fins if it had scales, and more likely to draw ears if it had fur. Example drawings from each condition are shown below.

Ward (1994)
Examples of creatures drawn by subjects in the (a) control, (b) feather, (c) fur, and (d) water and scales conditions.
Source: Ward (1994)

These results show that people can't help but be constrained by their knowledge and experience even when they are explicitly told to be truly creative. But most creative people, including Mare of Easttown writer Brad Ingelsby and director Craig Zobel, are under no such directives—it's common for artists to talk openly of past work that inspired them.

An earlier study by Ward, along with Steven Smith and Jay Schumacher, found that the influence of examples can have an even stronger constraining effect. They used the same basic method as Ward's "draw an alien" experiments, but some subjects saw some examples first. Even when subjects were instructed to create things that were as different from the examples as possible, their creations were more likely to share features in common with the examples than a control group that saw no examples.

Being creative doesn't have to mean being totally original

There's nothing wrong with remixing or combining old ideas to make something new. Like I said, in the case of Mare of Easttown, the result can be great, by combining just enough familiarity with some novelty to create a fresh experience.

And when it comes to reflecting on our own creativity, it's worth recognizing a consequence of Ward's research: creating something totally new is exceptionally rare. Generally speaking, it really is true that there's nothing new under the sun.

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