New Ideas about New Ideas
Considerable work has been done on creativity across a wide-range of disciplines, including business, cognitive neuro-science, economics, history, psychology, and sociology, but until recently there has been little cross-disciplinary interaction. On March 10 and 11, 2006 fifteen experts on innovation and creativity from these disciplines – both established senior scholars and emerging younger researchers – met at the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts with support from the Alfred Sloan Foundation. The purpose of the conference was to foster cross-disciplinary dialogue on creativity and innovation.
As the conference demonstrated, the time is ripe for this interaction, with a critical mass for a science of creativity and innovation emerging. While there is some tradition of work on creativity in history, sociology, and psychology, economists, including those in business schools, are increasingly studying creativity. Moreover, cognitive neuro-science has provided a new set of tools for analyzing the creative process at a finer level than has ever been possible.
Given the varied group and the nature
of scientific papers, one might have been concerned about the ability to
communicate across disciplinary lines, let alone to find common interest (and as
a co-organizer, I will readily concede that this was a real concern!), but soon
cognitive neuro-scientists were discussing history; psychologists were talking
about economics; and everyone was poring over images of the brain. And, after
close to 20 hours of discussions, some during an informal stroll along the
Indeed the timing was also fortuitous
from a policy perspective. As the most recent State of the Union Address
With innovation viewed as a way for
Our working definition of creativity was the production of novel and useful ideas or artifacts and the discussion touched on the arts, industry, and sciences. Perhaps the single point on which there was the widest agreement was that while there are recognizable patterns in creativity, the motivations of creators and the processes by which creative ideas arise are frequently specific to the individual or idiosyncratic. The idiosyncratic nature of innovation showed up in brain images; in problem-solving experiments, and in analyses of historical and contemporary innovations and innovators. Participants were optimistic about our ability to fostering creativity. However, we agreed that, to be successful, efforts will have to confront the idiosyncratic nature of creativity.
It is also noteworthy that the conference was organized in this spirit. Conference attendees were “putting their money where their mouths were” by attending a meeting with an exceptionally wide range of people and they did so because they firmly believed in the value of drawing connections between seemingly disparate lines of work.
At the finest level, the cognitive neuroscientists at the conference showed the idiosyncratic nature of creativity in brain functioning. Mark Jung-Beeman, a cognitive neuroscientist at Northwestern University, showed that distinct brain areas contribute when people solve problems with insight, i.e., when solutions are accompanied by “Aha” moments. The patterns of brain activity suggest an increase in “top-down” processing, and increased contributions from the brain’s right hemisphere. He attributed the latter effect to the more diffuse links in the right brain, which allow for novel or idiosyncratic connections across distantly related concepts.
John Kounious, a cognitive neuro-scientist
Teresa Amabile, a psychologist at
Perhaps the most extreme statement of
the view of innovation as idiosyncratic is the chance permutation model of Dean
Keith Simonton, a psychologist at the
The motivations of innovators also are
idiosyncratic, and this is particularly true in the initial development of an
innovation. Josh Lerner, an economist at
David Galenson and Bruce Weinberg (a co-organizer of the conference), economists at the University of Chicago and Ohio State University, find that early phases of revolutions in the arts, industry, and science are more likely to arise from individuals pursuing their aesthetic goals or from serendipity. As revolutions develop, market factors become more important. In physics for instance, many of the discoveries that lead to the development of quantum mechanics arose accidentally, but later contributions were self-conscious attempts to explain earlier results.
Consistent with these findings, Teresa Amabile’s research has revealed an intrinsic motivation principle of creativity: People will be most creative when they are motivated primarily by the interest, enjoyment, satisfaction, meaningfulness, and personal challenge of the work itself, rather than by extrinsic inducements or constraints. This principle is best understood within a social-psychological view of creativity. Although a person’s production of creative (novel and appropriate) work certainly depends on both their domain expertise and their creative thinking skills, it also depends on their level of intrinsic motivation for the work, which can be strongly influenced by the inducements and constraints in their social environment. Experimental and non-experimental research has revealed several aspects of work environments, such as a primary focus on tangible rewards or critical evaluation, that can undermine intrinsic motivation and creativity. It has also revealed several aspects of work environments, such as autonomy and optimal challenge in the work, that can support intrinsic motivation and creativity. For example, using their diary database, Amabile and her colleagues have discovered a number of specific leader behaviors in the everyday work environment that have positive or negative effects on daily perceptions of leader support for creativity and, thus, on creativity itself.
Richard Freeman, an economist at
Gerald Holton, a physicist and
historian of science, discussed the role of thema – unquestioned principles
held by individuals that guide their creativity. For instance,
David Kaiser, a physicist and historian at MIT, presented a cautionary tale from the rapid, post-war expansion of physics. He showed how the expansion led teachers to emphasize the most mechanical sides of quantum mechanics, which were easier to teach, while shying away from more qualitative questions of interpretation – the "What does it all mean?" musings that had so exercised the discipline's leaders before the war. In this way, concrete pedagogical pressures helped to change how modern physics was handled in the classroom, and, indeed, what would count as "creative" among the younger generation.
Thus, cognitive neuro-scientists, economists, historians, and psychologists all see creativity as being idiosyncratic in terms of the processes through which it develops and the motivations of creators. Given this view, there was great concern about efforts to test outcomes in higher education. Similarly, the group was concerned about the ability to identify areas for innovation and target support to them, as opposed to supporting innovation more broadly. Nevertheless, the Unites States must strive for excellence in education and support scientific research that will provide the basis for future economic growth in a flexible way.
Technological centers such as Silicon
Valley and the Route 128 Corridor outside of
Perhaps the finest grained evidence here comes from the work of David Kaiser who has traced the flow of ideas among physicists, looking at the development, mutations, and spread of Feynman diagrams. Using these diagrams, which illustrate interactions between particles, he shows how interacting communities modify and define techniques.
Weinberg has shown that geography affects the probability of contributing to a scientific revolution. People who went to graduate school at a place where they were exposed to the people who pioneered the new paradigm were more likely to make contributions to the paradigm than people who attended other schools. The nature of their work was also affected.
Lynne Zucker and Michael Darby, a
sociologist and economist at the
While there was considerable optimism
about the future of the
Work on the effect of age on creativity dates back at least to Harvey Lehmann’s Age and Achievement, published in 1953. The relationship between age and creativity is particularly important today with new technologies developing rapidly and the workforce aging, driven by the large baby boom generation. Will our ability to innovate and take advantage of innovations be affected by the aging workforce? How can companies that need to innovate adapt to an aging workforce?
While there seems to be a presumption that creativity is associated with youth, there was a consensus that older individuals can, and frequently are highly creative. David Galenson outlined a distinction between experimental and conceptual innovators. Conceptual innovators work deductively and frequently make their most important contributions early in their careers. Experimental innovators work inductively, accumulating knowledge from trial-and-error experiments, and tend to do their most important work later in their careers. These experimental innovators may be entering their peak years of creativity.
Dean Keith Simonton discussed a different approach, one that focuses on disciplines rather than the styles of individual innovators. In his view creativity varies across disciplines depending on the rate at which ideas can be developed and elaborated. He argued that in many fields creativity increases for much of the life and that even in fields where creativity is greatest at early ages, older individuals make important contributions at the same rate as younger individuals after controlling for their lower rate of publication.
Regardless of the approach, and there was an active, scholarly discussion of the relative merits of the two approaches, it is clear that older individuals are often highly creative. Both approaches imply that there will be differences across fields in the age at which people are most creative – in Galenson’s approach the shares of conceptual innovators, who tend to be most creative when young, and experimental innovators, who tend to be most creative later in their careers, vary across fields. One wonders whether the development of information technology was due at least in part to the relative youth of the workforce and if technological progress may shift to other areas as the workforce ages.
Ben Jones, an economist at
Weinberg’s work has shown that people who make contributions to new scientific paradigms tend to have been exposed to them in their formative professional years. While this result would suggest that younger individuals are more involved with important innovations, he has also found that older individuals often make the contributions that set off innovative revolutions. Thus, older individuals have a crucial role to play in the innovative process.
Many directions for future work emerged from the meeting. There was considerable interest in using the emerging tools of cognitive neuro-science to test the foundations of other theories. Among the possibilities would be probing the effect of age on creativity and receptivity to new ideas by looking at changes in cognition over the life cycle. Another area in which links could be made was the relationship between affect and psychosis and creativity across domains. There was also interest in linking observational data on the creative output of scientists or industrial innovators to information about cognitive functioning. Similarly, it would be valuable to study cognition under various incentives and other aspects of the social environment. Work is also necessary to reconcile differences in views of creativity that have emerged across the various disciplines.
Bruce A. Weinberg
T. M. (1996).
Creativity in context: Update to the social psychology of creativity.
Amabile, T.M., Schatzel, E.A., Moneta, G.B., Kramer, S.J. (2004). Leader behaviors and the work environment for creativity: Perceived leader support. The Leadership Quarterly, 15:1, 5-32.
Amabile, T.M., Barsade, S.G., Mueller, J.S., Staw, B.M (2005). Affect and Creativity at Work. Administrative Science Quarterly, 50:3, 367-403.
Folley, Bradley S., and
Galenson, David W. “A Portrait of the Artist as a Very Young or Very Old Innovator,” NBER Working Paper Series, Working Paper 10515, May 2004.
Galenson, David W. and Bruce A.
Weinberg, “Creating Modern Art: The Changing Careers of Painters in
Jones, Benjamin F. “Age and Great Invention.” Working Paper, Northwestern
Jones, Benjamin F. “Age and Great Invention.” Working Paper, Northwestern University, 2005.
Jung-Beeman, Mark, Edward M. Bowden, Jason Haberman, Jennifer L. Frymiare, Stella Arambel-Liu, Richard Greenblatt, Paul J. Reber, John Kounios, “Neural Activity When People Solve Verbal Problems with Insight,” PloS Biology, vol. 2, issue 4, April 2004.
Kaiser, David. Drawing Theories
Apart: The Dispersion of Feynman Diagrams in Postwar Physics (
Kaiser, David. “Training Quantum Mechanics: Enrollments and Epistemology in Modern Physics.”
Lerner, Joshua, and Jean Tirole, “The Dynamics of Technology Sharing: Open Source and Beyond,” NBER Working Paper Series, Working Paper 10956, December 2004.
Simonton, Dean Keith, “Creativity: Cognitive, Personal, Developmental, and Social Aspects,” American
Psychologist, January 2000.
Bruce A., “Which Labor Economists Invested in Human Capital? Geography,
Vintage, and Participation in Scientific Revolutions,” Working Paper,
Zucker, Lynne G., Michael R. Darby, and
Marilynn B. Brewer, “Intellectual Human Capital and the Birth of
Amabile, Teresa M. – Edsel Bryant Ford Professor of Business Administration; Unit Head, Entrepreneurial Management; Harvard Business School
Darby, Michael R. – Professor of Policy, Director of the John M. Olin Center for Policy, Anderson School of Management, University of California, Los Angeles
Freeman, Richard B. – Herbert Asherman
Professor of Economics,
Galenson, David W. – Professor of
Goroff, Daniel – Vice President and Dean
Holton, Gerald - Mallinckrodt Research Professor of Physics and Research Professor of the History of Science
Jones, Benjamin F. – Assistant Professor,
Kellogg School of Management,
Jung-Beeman, Mark – Associate Professor of
Kaiser, David – Associate Professor of the History of Science and Lecturer, Department of Physics, MIT
Kounios, John – Professor of Psychology,
Lerner, Joshua – Jacob H. Schiff Professor
of Investment Banking,
Park, Sohee – Professor of Psychology and
the Center for Integrative and Cognitive Neuroscience,
Saha, Subhra B. – Graduate Student of
Sehl, Andrea N. – The Varian Group
Simonton, Dean Keith – Distinguished
Professor of Psychology,
Weinberg, Bruce A. – Associate Professor
Zucker, Lynne G. – Professor of Sociology,