Do We Have a Hidden Bias Against Creative People?

In a recent survey of 1500 CEO’s by IBM’s Institute for Business Value, “creativity” was singled out as the most important leadership characteristic for businesses of the future.

Indeed, we all value and enjoy the creative output of designers, chefs, and out-of-the-box thinkers in all corners of the market.

And we celebrate innovative leaders and entrepreneurs and turn them into rock stars and celebrities.

But interestingly, there is quite a bit of research which suggests that many of us actually have a bias against creative people. As in, we don’t want them to be our leaders, we don’t want them working for us, and most shockingly perhaps – we don’t want them in our classrooms.


Are we cultivating creativity in the classroom?

I think we would all like to believe that we nurture creative students, and create a learning environment that is conducive to fostering creativity.

But numerous studies have found that teachers actually prefer students who are “pleasers,” who have traits that are somewhat the opposite of creative types. And as much as I hate to admit it, I suspect I’ve been guilty of this as well. Sigh…

Who are your favorite and least favorite students?

Researchers from Union College and Skidmore conducted a study of 16 teachers (aged 25-70) from elementary schools near Albany, NY.

The researchers created a 20-item creativity “prototype” which consisted of 10 characteristics previously found to be associated with high creativity, and 10 characteristics found to be associated with low creativity.

Characteristics of creative children included qualities like:

  • Makes up the rules as he/she goes along
  • Impulsive
  • Nonconformist
  • Emotional
  • Takes chances
  • Tends not to know own limitations and tries to do what others think is impossible

Characteristics that were least typical of creative child included qualities like:

  • Tolerant
  • Reliable
  • Practical
  • Logical
  • Understanding
  • Good-natured
  • Sincere
  • Dependable

Teachers were asked to rate their favorite student on these 20 characteristics using a 9-point scale ranging from Least descriptive of this student to Most descriptive of this student.

Teachers were also asked to rate their least favorite student on these same 20 characteristics.

Unsurprisingly, the teachers’ responses to their favorite and least favorite students were quite different.

Their favorite students tended to have profiles consistent with characteristics that were least descriptive of creative children.

Their least favorite students had profiles which were more consistent with characteristics typical of creative children.

In other words, the teachers favored the students who exhibited fewer “creative” traits.

Side note for those who might be curious about the stats: There was a significant negative correlation between the teachers’ favorite student and the creative prototype (mean r=-.63, p<.01), and a significant positive correlation between the teachers’ least favorite student and the creative prototype (mean r=.49, p<.05).

Wait! It’s not what you might be thinking

So are teachers basically just a bunch of creativity-haters who wake up every morning to think up new ways to squash the creativity out of young minds?

Or are they just worn down by the lack of resources provided to them and simply want to keep students in line and get through the day?

No, teachers aren’t deliberately trying to discourage creativity of course. And it’s not even entirely about classroom management. Most say they enjoy having creative students in the classroom and believe that a part of the day should be devoted to developing creative thinking skills.

So why the apparent contradiction? As it turns out, there is something more subtle that seems to contribute to the larger picture.

In a follow-up study, the researchers took the same list of 20 characteristics used to create the creative “prototype” in Study 1, and asked teachers to rate the degree to which each of the items was characteristic of a creative child.

Lo and behold, the teachers’ responses revealed that their idea of what a creative child actually looks and behaves like was different than that of the researchers.

Here are some of the characteristics teachers rated as being most characteristic of a creative child:

  • Sincere
  • Responsible
  • Good-natured
  • Reliable
  • Logical

And the characteristics they rated as being least characteristic of a creative child?

  • Makes up the rules as he/she goes along
  • Is impulsive
  • Is a nonconformist
  • Is emotional
  • Tends not to know own limitations and tries to do what others think is impossible
  • Likes to be alone when creating something new

So it’s not that teachers simply want to extinguish creativity in favor of compliance. They actually have a different concept of what creative children behave like.

Creativity begone!

Nevertheless, ambivalent or negative attitudes towards students can have an adverse effect on performance, not to mention engagement. These “creative” behaviors could also be suppressed or eventually wither and die in an attempt to gain the approval of teachers and peers.

So what are we to do?

Take action

Private teachers, who have the privilege of getting one-on-one time with students in a creative discipline like music, dance, and drama, may be uniquely positioned to nurture and develop the characteristics that might not always be fully embraced in a classroom setting.

While there is certainly a need for discipline, technique, tradition, and structure, perhaps it is just as important to teach young minds how to break the “rules,” question tradition, and re-imagine the accepted way of doing things by taking a fresh look at things.

In your own teaching, what exercises, strategies, or means, do you use to provide young minds with an experience they may not always get in the classroom? How do you let them know that it’s ok to shoot for the moon and fall short? To be playful, try crazy impossible things, experiment, question your advice, and go against the grain?

I’d be really curious to hear what helps to get your students’ creative juices flowing. Share below in the comments!

Additional reading

John Cleese on the 5 factors to make your life more creative (yes, that John Cleese). Worth a look, even if only to see Cleese speak out of character on a more serious topic.

photo credit: Me2 (Me Too) via photopin cc

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24 Responses

  1. Watched the Cleese talk — I cannot tell you how enthusiastically I was nodding up and down at 7:51. I have been a part of far too many tech companies run by little kids with too much money where “confidence” was used to describe exactly what Cleese describes here: the stupidity and total lack of self-awareness needed to be wrong, first, loudest. Utter idiocy was spat out, but loudly and with conviction, and within 15 milliseconds, and so these were the “go-getters” who had “confidence” and were “going places.” Often, they were the favorites of those CEOs who prized “creativity and “out of the box thinking” — lots of sarcasm quotes here — because like the teachers the CEOs had no clue what the hell actual creativity looked like. They judged the alpha baboon to be the one who pushed himself to the front of the pack, whether he had anything valuable to say or not. And they never did.

    I am so glad to be nowhere near the for-profit world anymore. My current company is a nonprofit that, for many reasons, is created to move more slowly and more precisely. Much more is at stake than at a typical tech-widget manufacturer. We get time to make the RIGHT decisions.

    I was also nodding at his statements about isolating oneself in a time-sensitive bubble, and relaxing in the knowledge that you don’t have to take the first solution that presents itself, and that you will find the right one eventually (which is real confidence). That has been a hallmark of how I compose ever since I started. I take my damn time, and if something doesn’t work, I remove it and try something else. A piece that may take 4 minutes to play may have taken months to get just right.

    It’s actually very good fortune for composers that we can work like this. I always tell myself that I’m not a sculptor or a painter. Once you chip off a bit of stone, it’s off for good. And you can only scrape paint off a canvas or erase a piece of paper so many times before you make a hole. Me? I can erase bad ideas as if they never even existed. Why not take advantage of that? I’d rather have one really good piece of music finished, and probably will have learned a lot more from that one piece, than have seven crappy ones done. Who needs the crappy ones, anyway? And if all you do is churn out shit piece after shit piece in pursuit of quantity, all you’ve done is learn how to write shit music. Composing is much like practicing, and is much like mastering any task — slow down and get it right.

    I’m probably also secretly happy to hear him validate my legendary indecisiveness when I don’t feel like I have sufficient information. And I’m going to remember his comeback about not taking snap decisions just to chicken out. God, so many of those idiotic tech companies were filled with those sorts of fools, too — loved to make snap decisions, loudly and with “confidence” — but wouldn’t stick to them! I used to get crazy with them for revisiting decisions constantly. The sales department never knew what the hell they were selling, and the manufacturers never knew what to build.

    I’ll stop — this is probably not the place for me to bitch about stupid corporate idiots I once knew, but it felt good. 🙂 It’s just nice to be vindicated by someone who clearly knows what he’s talking about.

    Anyhow, off to bed. Ta.

    1. Janis, you are such an inspiration. Like Dr. Kageyama, you provoke, awaken, and inform. I always look forward to his exceptional articles and insight, and your astute comments. I generally cannot add anything to your grounded comments, though I try; that is I study your comments and find them so succinct and thorough that no further explanation or ideas arises. I am not a naysayer, but often I cannot help seeing a somewhat varied take, or view on any idea, opinion, or concept. I have found questioning ‘certainties’ and established ‘doctrine’ a necessary and most useful exercise. Often this process reinforces that which is offered. Equally often I discover, or uncover, unique and coherent ideas, that at the least apply to my particular understanding, or stage of development. BTY, I like being ‘corrected,’ or otherwise properly informed as to any real misunderstanding, I might have, if expressed in a didactic and friendly manner. This website, my hero Dr. Kageyama, and wonderful participants like you, restore my faith in productive and meaningful human interaction. Thank you so much.

  2. The “haters” are blocked artists. They won’t allow themselves to express their creativity and therefore resent anyone who does. Julie Cameron explains this beautifully in her book “The Artist’s Way”, it made so much sense.

    1. That’s also a big part of making a sequestered, isolation bubble for yourself. It gets those people the hell out of the room so you don’t have to deal with the chatter of “no it won’t work you need to do it this way stop back up let me do it you’ll never get ahead that way.” To some extent, we all need to be able to stick up for our ideas to the world, but not while we’re in the midst of molding them. Then, we just everyone to STFU and go away for a while.

  3. I entirely agree with the John Cleese video, however, I think that the experiment is skewed. All of the descriptions of ‘creative’ kids are negative and all of the descriptions of less creative children were positive. Of course the teacher won’t like students who are compulsive, make the rules up as they go along, etc.
    I think that the study would be more accurate if there were positive and negative descriptions of each ‘type’ of person.

    1. That’s just what I was thinking. In addition to a very musical background, I have a degree in counseling psych, and couldn’t help but notice that the “creative” list is also descriptive of troubled kids with a bad home life.

      I would also add that I don’t like either “creative” list – the researchers’, OR the teachers’. Where did these come from? And why did neither group include words like “curious”, “playful”, or “original”?

      And finally, lots of creative people I know (like my entire family of musicians….my artist husband and daughter….the other two in my trio) would have been considered “pleasers” in class much of the time because they learned how to channel their creativity (i.e. get along in a group). The one exception is my son, who has ADHD. But that is a separate issue. 😉

      1. @Bryn,

        The list of 20 adjectives/phrases used as the “prototype” for creative children were the most frequently endorsed items from a list of 50 characteristics found to be associated with high and low creativity in adults in two previous research studies.

        And yes, the researchers also note that some students have the flexibility to adapt to the demands of the educational system and excel, yet maintain their creativity within that context. So for some, it’s certainly not an all or nothing proposition. Unfortunately, it’s not as clear what to do for those students whose creativity may be discouraged because of a lack of behavioral adaptability. There was a study in 1980 which I thought was kind of sad – the 2nd graders who scored highest on tests of creativity were the same kids who were identified as “getting in trouble the most” by their classmates.

    2. @LM

      Keen observation. There were a few items on the creative list that could be considered “positive” – e.g. “is progressive,” “is determined,” but indeed most would generally be considered negative or disruptive qualities.

  4. As I was reading this, it occurred to me that creativity is different from productivity. The traits teachers chose as being “creative” are highly conducive to being productive (i.e., getting work done per specifications — which is what generally is expected in school and at work). Creativity, on the other hand, is often antithetical to productivity. Creative people often don’t accomplish much in measurable units or in terms of profitability — think of all the creative geniuses who had messy, destructive lives — whereas the pleasant, responsible, reliable, etc., people rarely break new ground. Mozart vs. Salieri … ?

  5. One of my sons, like my younger brother, has every single one of the “creative” criteria as defined by the researchers (and hardly any of the non-creative ones). My other son has some of those creative criteria, but a lot more of the “non-creative” attributes. They have had vastly different experiences in our school system, until this year, when the “creative” one has not one but TWO (male) teachers, both extremely gifted in their own childhood/adolescence who respond to my child with thought-provoking stories of their own lives. For the first time in my memory, this son is coming home exclaiming over something a teacher said, instead of reporting that he got in trouble and had to skip recess. Given the huge numbers of students we’re asking public school teachers to manage — many of them with disabilities and emotional issues — I’m not at all surprised that the “creative” children aren’t as well-liked.

  6. I think like all things, there is a necessary balance needed to be found. A creative person without the ability to be “uncreative” (logical, understanding, etc.) will often be unable to harness their ability into something useful and productive for themselves or society. Whether a brother, sister, mother or father; I’m sure we all know those types who float aimlessly through life exploring their creativity but never accomplishing anything, and we really hurt for them. While it may be easiest to blame the teacher for hating the creative person, I don’t think it’s as simple as that. A fundamental tenant of education is to help young members of a society learn to harness the best of themselves which includes learning when wild outbursts of creativity are appropriate. The real tragedy are the people cutting the arts programs from schools because that only puts more pressure on the classroom teachers to manage more than they can possibly handle in a room full of so many diverse types of learners.

  7. It strikes me that some, at least, of the “creative” traits could also very well be traits of criminals. Make up your own rules, impulsive behavior, emotionality, etc,

  8. Do we have a hidden bias against creative people? No, ‘we’ have an overt bias against creative people. We live in a largely conformist society subject to a kind of consensus reality. Many schools have eliminated programs for gifted students because the thinking is that this will intimidate the less accomplished. Nerds, the skilled and dedicated students are often viewed as anomalies, not serious and progressive individuals endeavoring to ‘master’ the techniques of modern technology, or any other subject area. I cannot tell you how many teachers I’ve encountered that are intimidated by highly intelligent and creative students. As well, there are the strictures of the class syllabus, scheduled goals, and time constraints that impede the free flow of creative ideas within the schools mandate.

    I find it hard to believe that teachers do no have a better handle as to the nature of genuine creativity. If true, this speaks to the tragedy of much of higher education. I suspect that beginning teachers are more open to creative thinking, whereas teachers indoctrinated into the restrictions and limitations of administrative mandates are less so. If the study looked at the assessments of beginning teacher compared to longer term teachers, with respect to what they think constitutes creativity, perhaps the results would have indicated that beginning teachers harbored a clearer understanding of creativity that their tenured colleges.

    I found the video,” John Cleese on the 5 factors to make your life more creative,” intriguing, and worthy of consideration. He quotes Alan Watts as saying that, “you cannot be spontaneous within reason.” I’m not sure I agree. Can not spontaneity sort of trump or enhance reasoning. Often, within the process of thinking through an idea, can arise, as a product of such reason, and spring forth a spontaneous idea. I am merely suggesting that the process of creativity is not restricted to a particular individuals experience or understanding. Yes, of course, general principles apply, and conform to the general case. Yet there are many examples that do not fit this model. Creativity can ‘break through’ at any time, and for no apparent reason.

    Cleese suggests that humor is a necessary factor in creativity. How much humor did Sir Isaac Newton employ in the creation of his ideas, and many other notables? Again, general principles of creativity are valid, but are not applicable to every individual, as the history of intellectual thought demonstrates. I offer this for your consideration.

    1. John,

      You might find it interesting that indeed, there have been studies which have found that student teachers’ ideas of what their ideal student would look like begin to shift away from researchers/experts’ ideals only after they have begun to get into the classroom and gain actual teaching experience.

      It’s not clear if this is due to the realities of classroom management or socialization from other teachers, but it’s an interesting observation nonetheless.

  9. What about “respect” ? Teachers expect their pupils to “respect” them, and certains aspects of creativity look like a lack of respect, like making up your own rules, being adaptable, thinking differently. Or asking akward questions, that the teacher cannot answer : that makes him feel humiliated, which is stupid but extremely frequent.

    Creative people can make you feel insecure, also, because you don’t know what they will invent next and you tend to take it personnaly if that makes your job as a teacher more difficult.

    I don’t think teachers aren’t unconscious of what makes creative people. It’s just that, like every human, they want it without paying its price : creative yet respectful, non-impulsive and realistic pupils. Be creative, but not too many. Be creative, but don’t let this mess on your table. What if creativity NEEDS mess ? Creativity is messy, it does not respect the rules, it asks “why ?” every second to evident things, it does not respect the times and hours.
    Teachers whan you to be creative on mondays and thursdays between 3 and 6. Creativity doesn’t work like that ! If you really want creative people around you, you must accept the mess, the lateness, out-of-subject questions, you must accept to feel insecure, to ignore what will happen next, you must accept to see impossible things happen, or to think them as possible, you must accept emotions (even negative ones), impredictabilty and (apparent or real) irrespect, of yourself or the rules.

    @William Schart ” : It strikes me that some, at least, of the “creative” traits could also very well be traits of criminals.”
    They are. Painters, musicians, were considered a their times like criminals to the established rules : they introduced by force a new way of seing, of representing, of hearing, of expressing beauty or emotions. Scientists also where criminals against what you though you knew about the world : what, the Sun not circling your flat world, are you kidding ? You and me being the great-grandchildren of monkeys, are you serious ?

    Yes, creativity is unrespectful by nature. Do not ask why teachers have a problem with it…

  10. Successful artists possess both imagination and discipline. We know that folks like Chopin, Schubert and Mozart were wildly creative, but they also were tireless workers (which probably contributed to their early deaths). As teachers it’s important to foster both of these traits and it’s up to the teacher to recognize the weakness of the student and help them turn it into a strength.

    Unfortunately, I feel that much of music education has embraced the same rote approach that plagues much of general education. It emphasizes the discipline side at the expense of creativity and self expression. I get students who have studied piano for years who can’t improvise, compose or arrange their own music. They can’t even notate music! They’re pretty much reading machines. They’re robots. I have six year olds who not only compose their own little songs but also notate them! They improvise and experiment. Recently, a twelve year old student of mine played me her arrangement of “Over the Rainbow” that moved me to tears!

    I encourage my students to take risks and ask questions. I emphasize that art isn’t black and white and there is no “correct” way to play a piece of music. Nor should their motive be to play a piece “mistake free.” Listeners and former students of Chopin said he never played a piece the same way twice. Horowitz said that of his perfomances as well. Beethoven said “making a mistake is insignificant, playing without passion is inexcusable!” Mozart talked about the importance of playing “in the moment.” I believe the ability to play honestly and freely in the moment is where true perfection lies. Shouldn’t we be preparing and emphasizing this to our students?

    1. Taking on music education is like trying to convince a brick wall to open up a door for you. The combination of unquestioned tradition and uncertain status/funding means the bad will be defended right along wth the good. And in a mercantile society, music really only has 2 stakeholder groups: business and education. They define its meaning, use, and practice.

  11. Are the findings from the Union College/Skidmore study available online anywhere? I would love to be able to go back to the original source to see if there are other relevant findings.

      1. Thank you!

        I note that the main study you cited is now almost 20 years old. And that it is the most recent study on this subject referenced by the more recent article (Kim) in the section titled “Teacher’s Preferences.”

        Given the–I think–vast changes in society that the growth of the internet has fostered, I wonder if this has changed in twenty years. Mueller, Melwani and Goncalo suggest that it hasn’t in the larger society, but don’t specifically discuss schools (at least so it seems from the abstract).

        Thank you very much for sharing this information!

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