Posted May 9, 2017
By Mark Runco

Not just once, but on two separate occasions, social scientists have claimed that there is a Creativity Crisis in American. Kyung Hee Kim, for example, referred to a Crisis in an article in the 2011 Creativity Research Journal. She supported her claim with results from a longitudinal study that did indeed suggest a drop in creativity test scores over the past few decades. Admittedly, creativity is a difficult thing to test, but there are several useful indicators. Kim’s findings were discussed in the cover story of Newsweek, July 19, 2010.

The second claim of a Creativity Crisis was summarized in the e-journal Creativity and Human Development in 2015. This was my own doing and the article was titled, “The Real Creativity Crisis”—real because I was not entirely convinced by Kim’s findings. Her analyses showed only small drops, and I raised some methodological questions. Admittedly, I did not have the copious data that Kim had, but I did have a very particular explanation. The Creativity Crisis I described is the result of the Internet. The real problem is that the Internet pushes people toward conventional thinking. It asks for “Likes,” for example (e.g., Facebook) and you can find “What’s Trending Now” on a large number of pages and sites. What’s Trending Now is based entirely on what everyone else is thinking, which again implies that conventions are hugely important. Creative thinking is often unconventional, so this might be a problem.

Is it really a “crisis”? Well, it seems like it given how many millions of people use Facebook and how many pay attention to “What’s Trending Now.” Those of us studying creativity suggest that people put effort into being unique and unconventional, at least some of the time. If they use the Internet, there is much more about conventions than creativity and going against convention.

Now there is evidence of another crisis. This one has been no doubt stewing for some time, but the Election in the U.S. in November of 2016 brought it to a head, and it has become impossible to ignore. This crisis involves conservative thinking, which has a large impact on politics and economics, and thereby all facets of life (e.g., health, taxes, education, the environment). It is a crisis precisely because the impact is apparent in all facets of life, for hundreds of millions of people. Note that I said “evidence,” by which I mean reliable data pointing to this crisis. It is not just theory or speculation.

I can be more precise. Here are the details. First, extreme conservatism has led to a creativity crisis because:

  1. Apparently millions of people favor conservatism, as evidenced by policies now being supported by the Federal government (e.g., Trump and the Republican Congress).
  2. Data show conservatism to be strongly but negatively related to several indicators of creativity.
  3. Creativity plays a huge role in innovation, advance, progress, and growth, on both individual and societal levels.

The negative correlation just mentioned would be unimportant if creativity was unimportant. But consider the large-scale IBM survey (“Capitalizing on Complexity”), which states that when 1,500 CEOs were surveyed, they placed creativity at the top of the list in terms of important skills for leaders. Yes, creativity was number 1, numero uno, the most important thing for business leaders.

Is the negative correlation trustworthy? Indeed it is. Several empirical studies, with large groups (e.g., every State in the U.S. represented), have demonstrated that conservatism is negatively related to creativity. In the most recent study, creative accomplishment was operationalized in terms of patents. As noted above, creativity can be difficult to assess, so many scholars look at actual creative accomplishment, such as patents, as evidence of creative skill. This makes sense because assuredly a patent requires creativity. Indeed, patents are not granted unless the new product or service is in fact new. Newness is a requirement of the U.S. Patent Office and it is also required of creativity (see the 2012 review by Runco & Jaeger in the Creativity Research Journal, or Dean Keith Simonton, also in the CRJ, 2012, volume 24).

To be clear, a negative correlation implies that “more conservatism, less creativity.” Indeed, the States in America that had a majority voting for Bush and Trump are the same ones that are granted the fewest patents.

Further research on this troubling negative correlation would be useful, but even now it is worth asking, “Where is the U.S. headed if there are so many conservatives, and conservatism is both (a) holding sway in Washington and (b) negatively related to patents (and most likely the creativity and innovation associated with patents)?

From another angle: Our economy relies on business, and business relies on innovation, and yet innovation is hurt by conservative thinking!

The situation is actually worse because while patents were negatively related to conservative thinking, they are positively related to diversity! This may make matters worse in that diversity is under attack in many ways (e.g., the Muslim Ban), thanks to the current President, and this too is likely to lower innovation in the U.S.

Incidentally, as I write this I received email from a colleague, Marci Segal, who deserves special mention for starting World Creativity and Innovation Day back in 2001. She was in attendance at the U.N. General Assembly just last week when the resolution for World Creativity and Innovation Day, April 21, to become a U.N. Day of Observance was read.

To sum up, creativity and innovation are among our most valuable resources, and yet the current Federal government is pushing conservative thinking and decisions and making diversity less likely, and these things are contrary to what is needed for creativity and innovation. I, for one, am much more concerned about this Creativity Crisis than I was the previous two.

Suggested Readings

Kim, K.H. (2011). The Creativity Crisis: The Decrease in Creative Thinking Scores on the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking. Creativity Research Journal, 23, 285-295.

Runco, M.A. (2015). The Real Creativity Crisis. Creativity and Human Development (published January 27, 2015). 

Simonton, D.K. (2012). Taking the U.S. Patent Office Criteria Seriously: A Quantitative Three-Criterion Creativity Definition and Its Implications. Creativity Research Journal, 24, 97-106.