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Access to distant, remote associations

The cognitive psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman says there’s research that seems to indicate that social rejection fuels creativity.

I’ve always thought so. (Also that it works the other way too. Dreamy imaginative kids probably aren’t great at social skills, so they get social rejection, so they do even more fantasizing and pretending and nerding out. Loop loopy loop.)

By definition, creative solutions are unusual, involving the recombination of ideas. Unusual, divergent ideas and access to distant, remote associations are hallmarks of creative thinking. Perhaps those who like to distance themselves from others are more likely to also recruit associations from unusual places and think beyond conventional ideas.

Plus they have more time alone, plus they have brain space freed up from worrying about what Polly said to Sally about Molly and how to respond when all three bring it up at the lunch table.

Research supports this idea. The need to be seen as separate from others within a group enhances both nonconformity and creativity. In contrast, an interdependent mindset has been shown to extinguish the spirit of independence that is optimal for producing creative solutions. What’s more, those who report a high need for uniqueness make more unconventional word associations, show a greater preference for complex visual figures, and produce more creative drawings and creative stories.

Which raises an intriguing idea: maybe those with a high need for uniqueness are less sensitive to social rejection. Maybe social rejection even fuels their creativity! Indeed, some of the most creative minds of all time have faced very high levels of social rejection and isolation. Of course, it’s also possible that the unconventionality of creative people causes them to be social outsiders. The direction of causality is not clear.

My research-free guess (or opinion extrapolated from experience) is it’s both.

 

 

Comments

  1. 'Tis Himself says

    My research-free guess (or opinion extrapolated from experience) is it’s both.

    I suspect you’re right.

  2. says

    I have a very “unique” daughter.
    It’s not that she is cast out, rejected or isolated by her peers, she’s greeted enthusiastically by all of them whenever they meet. She just wants to be alone.
    She also shows a high level of creativity, her stories are marvellous (currently they all revolve around an otter) and her paintings have always been way ahead of her relevant age group.
    Actually, it made me worry and it took me time to come to terms with the fact that my kid has no friends.
    She just dosn’t know what to do with kids the same age. It was most noticable when she was younger: She talked early and well and wanted to verbally communicate her play-ideas while her peers just wanted to grab her hand and pull her there.
    So, yes, loops. Not just a variety of scarves.

  3. says

    I’m not sure. First of all, I’m not sure that I’m all that creative. But, to the extent that I am, I have always felt social rejection acutely, and, over the years, I’ve felt quite a lot of it. So, I’m of two minds, I think being on the fringes of society has encouraged me to be “creative” (and I always treat that word with a certain amount of scepticism), but being on the fringes has made me very conscious of my alienation. I am, possibly, then, someone who has been frustrated in my creatiivity by my sense of social apartness. It was, perhaps, my good fortune to have met someone who felt as socially isolated as I did, and together we made a remarkable partnership.

  4. says

    There have been those who were highly sociable yet creative. Dickens is one – though he had extraordinary levels of energy. I was surprised to read that Susan Sontag was relentlessly sociable and hated to be alone – her essays you can’t imagine coming from anything but solitude.

  5. Brian says

    I’ve always been a bit of a misfit. I hated being a teenager in a small country town where sport was the be all. Being a uncoordinated, shy, nerd meant I didn’t belong. I liked having ideas, but that was a no-no. I liked being alone, but was bullied for that too, ‘loser, got no mates’. There was always booze, at least I liked that, and being drunk is an acceptable social habit in Oz.
    But, big cities can handle all types. So, I can read my books, blogs and think what I like in my own space without having to fit in….
    I wouldn’t say I was creative these days, not driven anymore.

  6. Anonymous says

    My daughter is like yours, Giliel. I keep explaining to her teachers and so forth that she’s not shy, that she doesn’t need ‘bringing out of herself’, it’s just that she just doesn’t have much need for interaction with other kids. Also, although she amazes and delights me with her absurdist flights of fantasy and her well-developed sense of irony, her peers just don’t ‘get’ her, and she’s not interested at all in changing herself to fit in with them.

    There’s a lot of schizophrenia in my family, and I think that her creativity and her self-isolation may both facets of a schizotypal condition.

    I want her to be the great writer she has wanted to be since she was four years old, but at the same time I’m keeping a close eye on her, in case her boundless creativity is the precursor to the devastation of schizophrenia proper.

  7. tekanji says

    Eh, the broad generalizations you quote look a lot like confirmation bias to me. There’s this stereotype about creative people being these “damaged” (drug addiction, abuse, mental illness… whatever people can find that fits in with the societal narrative around that word) solitary snowflakes. In practice what that means is that people who fit these requirements are focused on (and, indeed, have those qualities played up as evidence of their creativity), while those who don’t fit the narrative are either ignored or simply don’t have people speculating on why they’re creative; they just are. This is, of course, only my observations on what I’ve learned/read/heard over the years, so ymmv.

    Also, FWIW, I am an extremely creative person (I write, draw, am interested in music, etc) and am also a very social person. My most creative times have been when my social life has been great, while right now I struggle with getting my creative juices flowing because my social circle has recently fallen apart. For some, depression is conducive to creativity, but for me it just swallows all of my hopes and dreams (ie. my motivation/creativity) into a black hole.

  8. says

    Mmm. Actually I think I was reading “creative” more broadly (or sloppily) to include interested in ideas and the like. I don’t consider myself creative either, in case I left the impression that I do. I’m a glutton for writing, obviously, but that’s not quite the same thing.

  9. says

    Tekanji:

    For some, depression is conducive to creativity, but for me it just swallows all of my hopes and dreams (ie. my motivation/creativity) into a black hole.

    This has been my experience as well. I hope things improve for you soon.

    There’s a Joyce Carol Oates quote that I can’t find at the moment, about how the most productive artists (in all media) aren’t the ones with the most drama in their lives but the ones who just keep on working steadily.

  10. tekanji says

    Ophelia: Yeah, after I posted my comment I realized that I had fallen into the trap of stereotyping what “creativity” is… (-.-;) The silly thing is that I absolutely count ideas and such as creativity. Programming, for instance, isn’t usually seen as “creative” (things that are technical are often seen of as the opposite of “creative”), but I know it to be a highly creative process. I’ve heard the same of math.

    I personally consider blogging as falling into the realm of creativity, but calling oneself “creative” is a label, so I get why you wouldn’t adopt the term for yourself. Which–now that I think about it–the fact that “a creative person” is more likely to be someone who self-labels as such probably contributes to what I was talking about stereotypes and confirmation bias…

    Ms. Daisy: Thanks. I’m feeling particularly discouraged/unhappy at the moment because my first few tries at fixing my situation haven’t panned out, but I just have to keep trying. Eventually I’ll hit on the right venue to meet people. Probably.

  11. says

    Creativity and a half-decent attention span? I used to have those… on Adderall. I want them back, but not if I have to deal with side-effects.

    Now it’s just… I’ll have a brilliant idea and then, *POOF*, gone, I’m on to something else five minutes later. It’s enough to drive a person crazy.

  12. martincohen says

    I have felt this way most of my life.

    Here is one of the poems I wrote about it:

    Outsider

    At school I was taunted

    “As an outsider, what do you think of the human race?”

    It was many years
    before I realized

    that

    in my case
    it wasn’t
    an insult

  13. says

    I have a very “unique” daughter. It’s not that she is cast out, rejected or isolated by her peers, she’s greeted enthusiastically by all of them whenever they meet. She just wants to be alone.

    My daughter is like yours, Giliel. I keep explaining to her teachers and so forth that she’s not shy, that she doesn’t need ‘bringing out of herself’, it’s just that she just doesn’t have much need for interaction with other kids.

    Here is a very good book for helping to understand many (I guess not all) such people:
    Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking (Susan Cain)

    And here is one illuminating example of a Myers-Briggs personality type that such a person may be tested as: INTP. (There are others, but this happens to be mine).

  14. says

    Indeed, some of the most creative minds of all time have faced very high levels of social rejection and isolation. Of course, it’s also possible that the unconventionality of creative people causes them to be social outsiders. The direction of causality is not clear.

    Or there may be a “hidden variable”: whether or not they were born introverted.

    Being introverted isn’t the same as being creative, nor the same as being shy. But it can help become creative, because we live so much in our heads, and it can give the impression of being shy, because we can easily get overloaded by social interaction and want to escape.

  15. rq says

    When I was younger I felt bothered by the fact that I couldn’t seem to make myself fit into the groups at school, until one day I woke up and realized I didn’t really care. I sat in a corner and read my books and people knew who I was because of that – but they also knew I was anti-social. Strangely, though, I was never bothered about it.
    In recent years, since the familial population explosion, I’ve been craving solitude and actually feeling extremely frustrated and almost depressed because I’m not getting enough of it. I miss not writing and not drawing and not being simply inspired like I used to be – this hit me a year ago or so, when I was at alone at work (evening shift), and suddenly realized I was solving a plotline that had been sitting on the backburner for 3 years. Because I had silence around me and no other people, no interaction.
    I actively struggle against being assimilated socially, even though my husband has been trying to socialize me, because I don’t want to let myself fall into routine thinking or into a habit of trivial small-talk (I’m very bad at small-talk; there’s been some improvement, but not too much). But, I think by now people have realized I’m not going to be chatty because that’s what normal people do. I’m waiting for the day when the kids are old enough to leave me alone for a while, to enjoy silence and to let the ideas out (among other things I have planned for myself).
    I don’t think I’m particularly shy (although public activities do scare me), I’m not soft-spoken, I don’t think I’m depressed, but I am an introvert. I live in a superficially extroverted community/society. And I’m extremely lucky that I don’t need them to understand me to survive in it and to be more or less accepted (if not considered ‘correct’).
    Here’s to the quiet ones.
    “Between the tides and double wides, she’d always stop to dream.
    For sometimes, it’s the quiet ones who grow up to scream.” (Beth Woodson)

  16. says

    rq: “I sat in a corner and read my books and people knew who I was because of that – but they also knew I was anti-social.”

    To be pedantic, you may have been “unsociable”, but surely not “anti-social”! The latter would mean that you were a risk to others, and that is not how you appear here.

  17. says

    Mmm. Actually I think I was reading “creative” more broadly (or sloppily) to include interested in ideas and the like.

    I don’t think that’s sloppy. And I support tekanji in the idea that things like programming and other engineering pursuits are highly creative. Software and its artefacts are by far and away the most complex things humans have ever constructed.

    You know how we did that? We invented new ways to think about things, new ways to understand abstractions and new ways to build on what we invented.

    That is pretty creative.

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