“There is a trend in creativity research to consider creativity as only wonderful, and creative individuals are lucky, or everybody is creative at different levels, and that is always a great characteristic,” says Eric Bonetto, lead author of a new scientific paper The Creativity Paradox in the journal New Ideas in Psychology. “It is beneficial for us to be creative. But there are social regulations that could also sanction creative individuals. And we see that in enterprises, in companies, in research laboratories where sometimes new ideas are not welcome because they deviate too much from the norms. We see this with Nobel Prize winners who are celebrated only decades after their discovery.”

Bonetto is a social psychologist in Provence, France who studies basic human needs. His focus is on epistemic needs – the human need for knowledge and a reliable understanding of our world. Bonetto and his team, creativity researcher Nicolas Pichot, emotion researcher Jean-Baptiste Pavani, and evolutionary psychologist Jaïs Adam-Troïand examined the perils of a trait that is increasingly being heralded as the most important skill of the twenty-first century: creativity. 

The Creativity Paradox acknowledges the fact that risky, unconventional creative behaviors have many benefits. Flouting established norms allows avant-garde artists and innovators to create and problem-solve in ways that are beneficial to the individual and to society. If the work is received favorably, creativity also releases endorphins that fosters social bonding.

We’ve been hearing for years how much institutions and thought leaders value creativity. In practice, however, risky rule-breaking behaviors inextricably linked to creativity and innovation are largely discouraged, from the time we enter school and throughout our careers. Creativity pushes the boundaries of social norms, norms that Bonetto says “provide information about what to do, about what is secure, what are the good procedures. They favor cooperation because if everybody in the group follows the norms, everybody is predictable. I can cooperate with people because I know what they will do.”

Bonetto and his team looked at how creative behaviors that deviate from social norms often ostracize a creative individual. Breaking social rules can bring personal, professional and financial ruin to creatives. History abounds with stories of creativity and innovation being served up with a heap of suffering at the hands of our social groups. Beat poet Allen Ginsberg endured an obscenity trial for his poem Howl. Galileo was sentenced to life imprisonment for his discovery that the earth orbited the sun. Hungarian physician, Ignaz Semmelweis, was demoted for demonstrating that hand washing could help prevent the spread of disease. Historically, if women were allowed to paint at all, they had to endure rumors of “immoral” sexual promiscuity (think Adélaïde Labille-Guiard) and accusations that they were stealing credit for what had to be a man’s work.

Even if creativity doesn’t risk a life sentence, it invariably risks social exclusion. “Social exclusion is very detrimental for health,” says Bonetto. “Not only social health but also psychological and physical health.” The scientific literature describes social rejection as akin to physical pain. Social isolation can also increase your risk of premature death. The Creativity Paradox urges researchers to identify key factors that drive someone’s decision to move past grave personal risk and exercise deviant, rule-breaking creativity.

A paradox based on sex appeal

So why would such a catch-22 exist? Why would our species value and depend on creativity yet spurn the individuals and behaviors that bring it about? According to the report, there’s a precedent for the double-edged sword of creativity. It parallels other Darwinian paradoxes found in nature, fitting within an evolutionary context.

The ornate display of colorful feathers on male peacocks hinders flight and the vibrant iridescence is hardly inconspicuous to predators. Darwin wrote that the sight of a peacock made him sick. The animal seemed to undermine his whole idea of survival of the fittest. Yet the peacock’s feathers attract mates. Darwin figured there must be a force intertwined with natural selection that can account for risky, innovative or ornamental displays and behaviors that make an organism attractive. The evolutionary mechanism Darwin proposed is called sexual selection. What do a peacock’s dangerously sexy tail feathers have to do with creativity? Research has shown that creativity influences women’s mating preferences. For Instance, ovulating women show a preference for creatively intelligent men. 

Bonetto postulates that applied creativity in the domain of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) supports problem-solving in novel ways that allow us to adapt to our changing environments, thereby promoting the survival of our species. Meanwhile, creativity in the domain of the arts (referred to as “ornamental creativity”) may support bonding and signal an individual’s intellectual fitness. From the paper: “In a nutshell, applied forms of creativity could yield survival benefits and ornamental forms of creativity reproductive benefits.”

That said, Bonetto agrees with creativity researchers like David Cropley whose findings show that creativity is domain-general. Domain-general creativity means that even though abstract artists and engineers produce distinctly different kinds of work, they both have a similar creative process. Whether deviating from the rules of a particular field or with society as a whole, any generative process that relies on norm-busting behaviors is perilous for the creative across domains.

Social peril for creatives is higher in times of crisis

Our physiological immune system allows us to fight off threats once they’ve entered our body. Our behavioral immune system, a mechanism first described by psychological scientist Mark Schaller, triggers behaviors to detect and fight off threats before they’ve entered the body. The behavioral immune system tends to make us more conservative and observant of strict social regulations. It may even contribute to xenophobia and ethnocentrism. Our behavioral immune system goes into hyperdrive during times of great environmental threat, like a pandemic.

During a crisis, we adhere more strictly to social norms and to stereotypes and we favor interactions with members of our own group. Humans become more averse to risky, norm-defying socially deviant behaviors and the creatives who embody them because norms wrap around us like a social security blanket. During periods when environmental threats abound, we are likely to observe a sharp decline in creative risk-taking.

“Social regulations could explain the rarity, the scarcity of creative behaviors in everyday life and the scarcity of imminent creativity because individuals would anticipate the social pressures, the social sanctions,” says Bonetto. “I can be creative and never exhibit creative behaviors because my environment regulates my behaviors.”

What’s the silver lining according to Bonetto and this new report? “If creativity evolved and we are still creative after all our evolution, it is because the benefits to being creative generally overcome the risk.”