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Why group norms kill creativity

Collaboration, cooperation, communities of practice, collective intelligence, and similar concepts have become very popular concepts in society, business, and education. Any system of organization must pay utmost homage to the primacy of the individual. Wisdom of the crowds is often misinterpreted as suggesting that people are intelligent when they think together. It’s more accurate to say that people are intelligent when they think alone and that this intelligence is amplified when they connect. It’s a subtle but vital distinction. A homogeneous group is often not very effective at creativity. Individual diversity, connected, produces substantial advances. A group can refine, extend, augment, and even perfect certain concepts and ideas. But, as this paper states – Why group norms kill creativity:

Unfortunately groups only rarely foment great ideas because people in them are powerfully shaped by group norms: the unwritten rules which describe how individuals in a group ‘are’ and how they ‘ought’ to behave. Norms influence what people believe is right and wrong just as surely as real laws, but with none of the permanence or transparency of written regulations…the unwritten rules of the group, therefore, determined what its members considered creative. In effect groups had redefined creativity as conformity.


  1. I think it is too general to state that group norms kill creativity. There are certain groups where group norms stand in the way of creativity, in others they don’t. There are creative groups too!

    Monday, June 15, 2009 at 3:08 am | Permalink
  2. Ken Allan wrote:

    Kia ora e George!

    There are many primal instincts, but none so overt as conformity. I believe it is part of the genetic function of human behaviour to conform when in groups.

    It perhaps arose through evolution, from the need that the individual has for the group in order to survive, among other factors.

    Many species exhibit similar behaviour patterns of individual members when brought together in a group. One only has to watch the behaviour of a biddable pet dog when it meets a wayward pack of other dogs to witness this in action. Conformity rules in most situations like those. It’s just as evident in the wild, though the behaviour of the individual on its own is less often observed.

    In the wild, many pack animals, including insects in communities, actively destroy individual members who do not conform, or else expel them to an inevitable fate on their own. If ever there is an agent for the evolution of conformity in the individual when with the group, that is.

    I posit that our primitive ancestors were no more civilised than some of us are today. It’s just that we have developed laws, legislation and normative societal action to restrain what otherwise would be considered such uncivil action of the group on individual members who do not conform to the group.

    Uncivil activity happens nevertheless, and we can witness this in the behaviour of gangs all over the globe. Though we like to think we are ‘civilised’, it is simply a very thin veneer.

    Catchya later

    Monday, June 15, 2009 at 5:04 am | Permalink
  3. Howard wrote:

    Good discussion George and Ken;
    It reminds me of Vygotsky’s lower and higher mental functions. What Ken describes sounds like a group manifestation of lower mental functions ( a level of thinking shared with animals). Valuing something like diversity may only occur if a higher mental function regulated this primal instinct for conformity.
    I would not call this type of creativity destruction a problem with norms, but a problem of lower levels of responding. Something like diversity may require a higher level of function with ideas, paradigms and the sort, mediating the thinking, whether it is a group or an individual. Valuing diversity could be a norm too! Creativity may need to start with an individual, but for a group to participate, you may need relevant shared ideas to be present in the group. As a metaphor, think of shared ideas and artifacts like the neurotransmitters of the group.
    In the study referenced by the PsyBlog, we don’t know what kinds of paradigms underly the groups thinking or of the study. Science in my view is a blend of theoretical and empirical. This study sounds like it over-emphasized the empirical without a good theoretical understanding of creativity. Sort of like a hold over from behavioral experimental psychology that thought of the individual as a black box where you only measure the inputs and outputs. Measure group creativity, but keep their shared ideas and paradigm base as a variable in the equation.

    Monday, June 15, 2009 at 11:37 am | Permalink
  4. Howard wrote:

    Joitske, I agree with you for the above reasons. Your post was not there when I started thinking through the previous post, I’d didn’t means to ignore you.

    Monday, June 15, 2009 at 11:45 am | Permalink
  5. José Mota wrote:

    This totally ignores the synergic effect of people with different competences, skills and experiences working together. It is, in itself, a very conservative and limited view of collaborating in a group. It certainly applies to some situations, but not to many others, None of the Beatles came even close, individually, to what they did together :-) .

    Tuesday, June 16, 2009 at 4:26 am | Permalink
  6. I think about groups in systems terms.

    A group, or an individual or an organization, can be open to change and interact intensively with its environment or can be relatively closed and highly selective about its interaction.

    A group’s members may coevolve and evolve the group, or a group may require its members to conform to a fixed image of what the group is.

    Relatively open groups create and evolve their own norms. Relatively closed groups maintain group norms to assure continuity.

    Human systems- individuals, marriages, families, communities, religions, etc.-run on a continuum from the containment and control of information, people, and resources within a fixed structure to the free flow of information, people, and resources toward collectively-held and continually-evolving images of a more perfect system.

    Closed systems fail to thrive. Open systems learn. But to exist all systems must have boundaries.

    How to get it right is a skill and an art that, I think, hasn’t yet been well articulated.

    Tuesday, June 16, 2009 at 11:16 am | Permalink
  7. “It’s more accurate to say that people are intelligent when they think alone and that this intelligence is amplified when they connect.” James Surowiecki discusses this in detail in his very good book “Wisdom of Crowds”, but adds, that people even don’t have to be intelligent individually to create better results as a loosely coupled crowd (not: small group).

    he also discusses under which circumstances, enabled by which group designs, small groups *can* act intelligent all the same.

    Wednesday, June 17, 2009 at 7:36 am | Permalink

One Trackback/Pingback

  1. [...] George Siemens posted about studies from the PsyBlog relevant to my current  research on creativity.  The PsyBlog post ended with the recommendation to go it alone if creativity is important to you.  I think this is counter productive.  Many important outcomes require group work and diversity in groups can be an important source of creativity when it brings together different perspectives.  Certainly one important factor encouraging creativity in groups are shared ideas and a paradigm based that supports creativity.  The base of my thoughts are in the following comment made in response to George’s blog post. [...]