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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