How Not Fitting In Can Lead to Creative Thinking

Sharon Kim, who teaches at Johns Hopkins University’s business school, always noticed that some people credit their creative successes to being loners or rebels.

Kim wondered whether social pariahs are actually more creative, so she decided to test the theory by inviting some volunteers to her lab to complete a couple of exercises. Before they began, Kim and her colleagues “rejected” some of the study subjects by telling them they weren’t picked to work as part of “the group.” There was no group—Kim and her team just wanted to make them feel left out. Others weren’t snubbed in the same way. Kim asked the participants to perform a pair of exercises on paper. In one, they were asked to determine what united a series of seemingly unrelated words (fish, mine, and rush, for instance—the answer is gold). In the other, they were told to draw an alien from a planet very unlike our own.

The rejects, it turned out, were better at both exercises. For the alien task, the nonrejected participants drew standard, cartoonish Martians. But the rejected participants drew aliens that looked radically different from humans—they had all of their appendages sticking out of one side of their body, or their eyes below their nose. The outcasts’ drawings were more creative, as rated by three independent judges.

So rejection and creativity were related, Kim determined. But with a caveat. The advantage was seen only among participants who had an “independent self-concept”—meaning they already felt they didn’t belong. There appeared to be something about being a weirdo that could uncork your mind and allow new ideas to flow.

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