Ideals Can Conflict

The usual wisdom says we are most creative when working in groups that avoid criticism. This is wrong:

His book … was published in 1948. … Osborn’s most celebrated idea was … the essential rules of a successful brainstorming session. The single most important … was the absence of criticism and negative feedback. … Brainstorming was an immediate hit and Osborn became a popular business guru. …

But … brainstorming … doesn’t work. The first empirical test of Osborn’s brainstorming technique was performed at Yale University, in 1958. … Groups were instructed to follow Osborn’s guidelines. As a control sample, the scientist gave the same puzzles to forty-eight students working by themselves. … The solo students came tip with roughly twice as many solutions as the brainstorming groups, and a panel of judges deemed their solutions more “feasible” and “effective.” … Numerous follow up studies have come to the same conclusion. …

Nemeth … divided two hundred and sixty-five female undergraduates into teams of five. … The first set of teams got the standard brainstorming spiel, including the no-criticism rules. Other teams were told … “Most studies suggest that you should debate and criticize each other’s ideas.” The rest received no further instructions. …The brainstorming groups slightly outperformed the groups given no instructions, but teams given the debate condition were the most creative by far. On average, they generated twenty per cent more ideas. And after the teams disbanded, … brainstormers and the people given no guidelines produced an average of three additional ideas; the debaters produced seven. …

“There’s this Pollyannaish notion that the most important thing to do when working together is stay positive and get along, to not hurt anyone’s feelings. … Well, that’s just wrong.” (more)

Since the usual wisdom has resisted robust data for so long, it must be that people want to believe it. But why?

First note that we tend to believe this more about other people, and less about ourselves. It is a good idea for a good cause non-profit, or perhaps for our firm somewhere at some future date. But when we have a big immediate problem we really want to solve, we rarely invoke this process. So we believe this more in far mode.

Second, we tend to believe that idealistic things go together. For example, if art is good and peace is good, then art must promote peace, peace must promote art, and so on. Third, since far mode is more idealistic and less analytically critical, in far mode we are more willing to set aside analytic doubts to believe the simple correlation that all good things go together. Fourth, since we are especially creative, social, and uncritical in far mode, and we see all of these as idealistic good things, we are especially willing to believe that they all go together.

We are more idealistic in far mode, and all else equal far mode tends to promote idealistic things. So in far mode we tend to think all idealistic things promote each other. Peace, art, relaxation, positive moods, agreement, cooperation, altruism, creativity, love, etc. But in fact, there are usually tradeoffs – some ideals come at the cost of others.

Interestingly, the article I quote above goes on to talk about patterns of interaction that promote productivity, and it repeatedly just assumes that whatever promotes productivity promotes creativity. For example:

People who worked on Broadway were part of a social network. … The density of these connections [was] a figure he called Q. … A musical created by a team of strangers would have a low Q. … The relationships among collaborators emerged as a reliable predictor of Broadway success. When the Q was low … the musicals were likely to fail. Because the artists didn’t know one another, they struggled to work together and exchange ideas. … But, when the Q was too high, the work also suffered. The artists all thought in similar ways, which crushed innovation.

Note that this just assumes that a musical’s success is mainly a tradeoff between communication and innovation. Since a successful musical is good, and innovation and communication are good, then musicals must be good because of their innovation and communication. But lots of things that influence success could correlate with how many people you know on Broadway.

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  • Perhaps it’s an overgeneralization from the single-person case, where it seems to be the case that a writer should separate in time the production of ideas from the editing of the text. This is extended to say that the production and criticism of ideas should be separate, and then further overgeneralized to where criticism harms even when its source is other people. This is supported by the fact that the self-help industry thoroughly muddles the three issues.

    • lemmy caution

      This is a good point.

  • Lord

    Not sure of how good a test that is. Companies and organizations have hierarchies and no criticism is to reduce deference and discomfort. Among equals with no other relationship these should not occur.

    • Lord

      The other rationale behind deferring criticism would be less pertinent discursions are less likely making it a time saving feature. Anyone attending organization meetings knows how often this occurs. This would occur mostly between insiders which these subjects are unlikely to be.

  • Russell Wallace

    Obviously the point of brainstorming is that you do generation and criticism as separate passes instead of mixing them, not that you skip the criticism stage. Maybe I’m missing something, but I’m not seeing where this was made clear to the brainstorming study groups; is it possible it might not have been? If not, then of course the miracle would be that they produced any useful output at all; it would trivially follow that their performance would be inferior to that of an uninstructed group or individual.

    • John

      Judging from wikipedia’s description, it seems like brainstorming theory says we should generate the largest possible initial idea set (with perhaps lower average idea quality) by withholding criticism until later. But in this case people generated larger numbers (not just higher quality) of ideas when they were told to criticize.

      If we generate more ideas when we’re critical, it doesn’t make sense to withhold criticism during the generation phase.

      • Russell Wallace

        Fair enough, then that is indeed a case against brainstorming.

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  • Hats off for pointing out the unproven benefits of creativity for Broadway. But then I’m surprised you didn’t discuss the possibility that perhaps groupthink is good (even in “near-mode”) precisely because creativity is overrated.

  • Pingback: Groupthink, revisited: forget what you think you know about brainstorming | The Thinker()

  • Jim

    As the author states, there are many reasons uncritical brainstorming is nurtured as an idea, despite its ongoing failure. It conforms not only to our idealist, ‘non-competitive’ natures, but also our current cultural memes. It is also reinforced by consultants and ‘creativity gurus’ who command huge fees who have purportedly ‘discovered’ the secret to the process. Most often, these sessions are a waste of time.

    This is not to celebrate an egoist approach either. But after at least a thousand business and product development projects, I find the most productive approach is to give 1 or 2 highly engaged folks (NOT at the top of the hierarchy) complete authority to come up with the initial idea including goal definition and suggested future direction, and allow them to consult whoever they wish as they do so.

    After the initial idea is laid out, a group can offer marginal value.