Does Kindness Kill Creativity?By Todd B. Kashdan, Ph.D. and Robert Biswas-Diener, Ph.D.
One of us attended a two-hour creativity workshop in 2011 where the workshop leader spoke about the various stages of creativity. He asked the audience to blurt out words related to their experience when working alone and generating new ideas. They yelled, “excitement,” “intrigue,” “joy,” even “love.” Basically, it is pleasurable to conjure up ideas. Next, the workshop leader asked the crowd to identify emotions associated with that next phase of creativity; the part where you share your ideas with the outside world. The crowd hushed and a few timid voices mumbled “fear” and “embarrassment.”
Thinking about a field of judges evaluating the sweat equity and inspiration that goes into our work feels wrong. What adult has the authority to claim that a kid's crayon drawn meatball-shaped house with watermelon-shaped, purple skinned parents is anything less than creative? If creativity is about originality and usefulness, how can anyone criticize never-before-used rhymes ("I don't like 'em figgity fat, I like 'em stiggity stacked/You wiggity wiggity wack if you ain't got biggity back")? As these MC Hammer lyrics suggest, actually, some ideas are terrible.
The experience in this workshop reflects a broader pattern in life regarding creativity: people tend to fall in love with their ideas. Research suggests that the easier an idea is to think of, the better and more correct it feels. This is why none of us can accurately judge the creative merits of our own ideas.
It is for this reason that creativity requires more than one person. Gifted authors still need editors. The best film directors rely on script supervisors to catch mistakes. Nobel Prize-winning scientists still submit their work to the scrutiny of peer review. The problem emerges in families, schools and societies that promote appreciation, compassion, and kindness over candor.
Make no mistake, we believe that kindness and other interpersonal virtues are admirable—just not when blindly applied.
Fortunately, little-known scientific research offers new insights into cultivating creativity.
You may be surprised to hear that politeness and kindness often inhibit creativity. In fact, researchers have shown that when groups adopt a “no-criticism/no-argument” ground rule, they produce far fewer creative solutions to problems. A culture that values debate, criticism, and quarrelsome discussions will be more productive, creative—and ironically—harmonious.
So how do we bring these scientific insights into the real world? For starters, before a single task is tackled at home, in school, or in the workplace, everyone should be educated about the microculture of the group. Microcultures can be thought of as the agreed upon ways of temporarily behaving, thinking or feeling in a small group of people within a limited geographical ar