Create to Compare or Compare to Create?


When we hear the word “creativity”, the first thing that comes to mind for many of us is our childhood, filled with colored pencils, paintbrushes, glue, and scissors. But, creativity comes in all shapes and sizes, and is manifested in all things from world changing policy and innovative technology to magnificent tasting food and DIY projects.

In today’s day and age, organizations of all types have increasingly placed more emphasis on creativity than ever before. Why you may ask? It is because creativity is needed to grow, survive, and meet the demanding expectations within competitive environments. As a result, people within these organizations are constantly being challenged to try what has never been done before, whether it’s reinventing corporate culture, teaching in a way that is contradictory to common belief, or creating an architectural masterpiece that has always been regarded as impossible. Whatever the case may be, creative solutions within these organizations typically do not come about through individual effort alone, but emerge as people work together.

Collaboration amongst a group of people allows for a greater number of creative ideas to surface. What’s more, activities such as brainstorming promote coming up with unusual solutions and allowing members to combine and build on the ideas of others. With higher demand for innovation, those in a leadership position must precisely determine how to maximize the creative output within groups or teams in their organization. Consequently, it is important for leaders to have an acute understanding of how individual differences, group dynamics, and cognitive processes affect the creativity of his or her workforce.

To provide some insight into this issue, Michinov et al. (2015) conducted an experiment that examined how social comparison and individual differences in creativity influence creative performance and the attention paid to ideas generated by a partner during a brainstorming session. To test their hypotheses, undergraduate participants were first given a test measuring creativity. Following the assessment, participants began a ten minute brainstorming session, thinking of as many different ways to use a cardboard shoe box as possible. The participant’s responses were assessed by two coders based on quality and quantity. During this session, participants communicated via computer with a confederate who was in the adjacent room while an eye tracker measured their attention. When the partner and confederate introduced themselves to each other electronically, the confederate indicated that they were an Arts (upward comparison) or Science (downward comparison) student. Upward comparison is when an individual compares themselves to someone they perceive as superior and downward comparison is when an individual compares themselves to someone they perceive as inferior. During the brainstorming session, the confederate used 30 prearranged ideas of what the shoe box could be used for (21 common ideas and 9 original ideas). After the brainstorming session, participants were given a post-experimental questionnaire that evaluated if the participant knew their partner’s major (Arts or Science) and if they felt they were more or less creative than their partner.

What the results of this study showed were that high creative participants had higher quality (but not quantity) ideas and increased attention to the ideas of their partner when they perceived their partner to be more creative than themselves (upward comparison). These results were not found to be true when there was downward comparison. For low creative participants, originality of ideas and attention paid to partner ideas were not significantly influenced by the upward or downward conditions.

Indeed, the results of this study may be difficult to generalize to the larger population because the laboratory situation did not truly represent the nature of a real organization. For instance, most organizations brainstorm in groups larger than two and typically do not collaborate solely using a computer in remote locations. It would be beneficial to social psychology to see this work replicated with in-person brainstorming using larger groups. It is also important to note that another limitation that may have altered the interpretation of the results was the absence of a control group.

However, what the findings of this study seem to suggest is that creativity within an organization may be controllable. That is, creative output may be largely dependent upon the organizational leaders’ ability to consciously create upward comparison when hiring individuals and assembling teams. Under these circumstances, creative individuals would be inspired by more creative co-workers and as a result look more lengthily at their co-workers ideas while improving the quality of their own. Therefore, if you are responsible in your organization for coming up with the next big thing, don’t forget about upward comparison, because it may help you and your organization create the unimaginable, just like you did when you were a kid with only your colored pencils, paintbrushes, glue, and scissors.

Michinov, Nicolas, Eric Jarnet, Natacha Métayer, and Benjamin Le Hénaff. “The Eyes of Creativity: Impact of Social Comparison and Individual Creativity on Performance and Attention to Others’ Ideas during Electronic Brainstorming.” Computers in Human Behavior 42 (2015): 57-67. PsycINFO. Web. 19 Mar. 2015.


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