The following is my favorite bit from the Jonah Lehrer’s essay “Groupthink.” I’ve never much cared for group work and group “brainstorming” sessions, so there’s that, but there’s also a bit here about the importance of criticism—the importance of having to defend one’s point of view—that I believe has ramifications for artists who don’t get honest responses to their work.It’s pedagogical, then, yes, and has to do with “Creative Writing Workshop,” but it also has ramifications for the social system surrounding the production of poetry in general, I believe (the friends who don’t want to say what they really think of each other’s work, for example.).So anyway, here it is:
In 2003, Charlan Nemeth, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, divided two hundred and sixty-five female undergraduates into teams of five. She gave all the teams the same problem—“How can traffic congestion be reduced in the San Francisco Bay Area?”—and assigned each team one of three conditions. The first set of teams got the standard brainstorming spiel, including the no-criticism ground rules. Other teams—assigned what Nemeth called the “debate” condition—were told, “Most research and advice suggest that the best way to come up with good solutions is to come up with many solutions. Freewheeling is welcome; don’t be afraid to say anything that comes to mind. However, in addition, most studies suggest that you should debate and even criticize each other’s ideas.” The rest received no further instructions, leaving them free to collaborate however they wanted. All the teams had twenty minutes to come up with as many good solutions as possible.
The results were telling. 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 nearly twenty per cent more ideas. And, after the teams disbanded, another interesting result became apparent. Researchers asked each subject individually if she had any more ideas about traffic. The brainstormers and the people given no guidelines produced an average of three additional ideas; the debaters produced seven.
Nemeth’s studies suggest that the ineffectiveness of brainstorming stems from the very thing that Osborn thought was most important. As Nemeth puts it, “While the instruction ‘Do not criticize’ is often cited as the important instruction in brainstorming, this appears to be a counterproductive strategy. Our findings show that debate and criticism do not inhibit ideas but, rather, stimulate them relative to every other condition.” Osborn thought that imagination is inhibited by the merest hint of criticism, but Nemeth’s work and a number of other studies have demonstrated that it can thrive on conflict.
According to Nemeth, dissent stimulates new ideas because it encourages us to engage more fully with the work of others and to reassess our viewpoints. “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,” she says. “Well, that’s just wrong. Maybe debate is going to be less pleasant, but it will always be more productive. True creativity requires some trade-offs.”
Another of her experiments has demonstrated that exposure to unfamiliar perspectives can foster creativity. The experiment focussed on a staple of the brainstorming orthodoxy—free association. A long-standing problem with free association is that people aren’t very good at it. In the early nineteen-sixties, two psychologists, David Palermo and James Jenkins, began amassing a huge table of word associations, the first thoughts that come to mind when people are asked to reflect on a particular word. (They interviewed more than forty-five hundred subjects.) Palermo and Jenkins soon discovered that the vast majority of these associations were utterly predictable. For instance, when people are asked to free-associate about the word “blue,” the most likely first answer is “green,” followed by “sky” and “ocean.” When asked to free-associate about “green,” nearly everyone says “grass.” “Even the most creative people are still going to come up with many mundane associations,” Nemeth says. “If you want to be original, then you have to get past this first layer of predictability.”
Nemeth’s experiment devised a way of escaping this trap. Pairs of subjects were shown a series of color slides in various shades of blue and asked to identify the colors. Sometimes one of the pair was actually a lab assistant instructed by Nemeth to provide a wrong answer. After a few minutes, the pairs were asked to free-associate about the colors they had seen. People who had been exposed to inaccurate descriptions came up with associations that were far more original. Instead of saying that “blue” reminded them of “sky,” they came up with “jazz” and “berry pie.” The obvious answer had stopped being their only answer. Even when alternative views are clearly wrong, being exposed to them still expands our creative potential. In a way, the power of dissent is the power of surprise. After hearing someone shout out an errant answer, we work to understand it, which causes us to reassess our initial assumptions and try out new perspectives. “Authentic dissent can be difficult, but it’s always invigorating,” Nemeth says. “It wakes us right up.”
Criticism allows people to dig below the surface of the imagination and come up with collective ideas that aren’t predictable. And recognizing the importance of conflicting perspectives in a group raises the issue of what kinds of people will work together best.