Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Creative Innovators

As I reported a few days ago, Vicki Abeles has produced a film called, “Race to Nowhere.” In it she decries what she sees as the American tendency to burden children with too much homework. My post linked here.

In her uninformed view too much hard work tends to stifle creativity and innovation. Given her belief that the nation’s strength lies in its creative innovators, she considers this a bad thing.

Unfortunately, the film is luring unsuspecting parents into giving their children less homework and more freedom, instilling in them an anti-ethic of creative self-expression. For that and many other reasons, it is well worth another debunking.

In truth, this idea dates to the 1950s. Well before there were culture wars, a certain number of leftist intellectuals were hard at work undermining American success and social cohesion.

They argued that we were all becoming “organization men,” and were so obsessed with conformity that we were losing our individuality and creativity.

It sounds like a good idea, until you consider that this theory was being used to attack the generational cohort that had won World War II.

When veterans came home from Europe and the Pacific, they applied the values they had learned in military service to the task of building a new America.

A group of deep thinkers decided that these values were unhealthy. They sold the idea that unless we became creative innovators we would lose our mental health and well being.

Everyone agrees that all cultures need innovators. To go from there to saying that we should strive to make all children into creative innovators is one leap too far.

A group comprised of creative innovators is simply not a group. It’s institutionalized anomie, which is decidedly not very good for your mental health.

Today Shirley Wang reports on the latest research on social norms. Social psychologists are just getting around to asking why people follow group norms. They want to know how norms get established, how they change, and how they influence the way we behave, think, and feel. Link here.

The subjected has been neglected over the years, largely because scholars have been obsessed with creative innovation and other expressions of individuality. Wedded to the idea of free self-expression they overlooked the value of conformity.

Why do people conform to social norms? The answer is perfectly clear. Wang explains: “Norms serve a basic human social function, helping us distinguish who is in the group and who is an outsider. Behaving in ways the group considers appropriate is a way of demonstrating to others, and to oneself, that one belongs to the group.”

Belonging to a group provides considerable psychological benefits. Thus, everyone wants to know how to show that he or she belongs.

The culture wars have taught us to ridicule people who strive to conform, but everyone’s emotional well-being depends on the ability to practice proper social behaviors and attitudes. Your well being does not depend on your ability to express yourself creatively.

The point is obvious, but we have been so thoroughly indoctrinated into saying that creative innovation is the path to mental health that we have ignored the obvious.

Conformity is the basis of all social groupings. It does not, and should not, preclude innovation. Nearly all groups leave a place for non-conformists.

Unfortunately, they pay for their innovation with feelings of isolation and anomie. No matter how creative you are, feeling alone, isolated, and disconnected will damage your emotional well-being.

Being an outsider is difficult. It is not something that can or should be encouraged in schools or in the home. There is no redeeming social value in producing a generation of aspiring artists living in squalor.

Some people are natural-born innovators. To them it comes naturally. No one wants to force them to conform, but one wants them to learn to socialize, even if they are not going to become perfect conformists.

No innovator should be allowed to think that creativity excuses him from having good manners and practicing social niceties.

Of course, creative types are non-conformists until the moment when the culture adopts their trend. If an innovator leads the world in wearing his hat differently, once everyone adopts the same style, he is no longer a non-conformist.

I would emphasize that if creative innovators want to make a career out of their talent, they still need to develop a sophisticated level of social skills.

I know of more than a few talented artists who have seriously compromised their career prospects because they do not know how to work constructively with dealers and collectors.

If artists display arrogance and insolence, if they make every business transaction into a drama, if they do not know how to get along with collectors, they will not have successful careers.

Some great artists are not discovered until after their death. When this happens, most people think that the world was not ready for such great work.

The more pedestrian truth might be that when they were alive these same artists were insufferable boors. Their behavior was making it impossible for people to see their works.

Now, why do cultures adopt some innovations and not others? Why does one creative idea fall to the wayside while another catch on?

Here we have reached the zone that currently preoccupies social scientists.

New ideas, even new wrinkles on old customs, do not just catch on because an innovator has recommended them. In and of itself strangeness does not have very much appeal. New ideas become customary when they are adopted by someone who is more prominent, more influential, more powerful, and better connected than the innovator.

No creative innovator can do it by himself. If his idea does not get picked up by someone that people in the culture emulate, then it will die an ignominious death.

Ironically, these trendsetters and leaders tend to be “superconformists.” Only someone who embodies the culture’s values will inspire enough trust to inspire people to follow his lead and break with the normal way of doing things. .

Why are some innovations adopted while others are no? Wang suggests that: “the group often adopts their innovations because these new ideas or objects are an accessible way for members of the group to bond or signal solidarity. It could be a baseball cap worn backwards, or a pocket square. Each conveys a different identity.”

People do not become creative innovators because they find that it’s mentally healthy to do so. Their innovations are not adapted by the group because everyone finds them a great way to express individuality.

Quite the contrary, groups adapt new customs because they allow all individuals in the group to bond and to reaffirm their membership in the group.


JP said...

Stuart says:

"It sounds like a good idea, until you consider that this theory was being used to attack the generational cohort that had won World War II.

When veterans came home from Europe and the Pacific, they applied the values they had learned in military service to the task of building a new America."

They did this because it's what the "Hero generation" always does.

Collectivist and Materialist.

Compare and contrast the standard-issue "Awakening" generation.

Indivualist and Spiritual

See the Boomers for details.

The millenials are the next GI generation. Very conformist they will be.

Cappy said...

Couldn't agree more. In terse language, Do your dang math homework, ya little twerps, or prepare to be beaten senseless in global competition.

There. I feel better.