See Inside Scientific American Mind Volume 25, Issue 4

Creative Communities Are Key to Innovation

More than an expression of individuality, creativity takes shape in a social context

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The best actors, directors and screenwriters receive Oscars; the top scientists, Nobel Prizes. Society doles out a multitude of awards every year to celebrate the creative achievements of individuals. Such events feed a popular conception that creativity is a gift only certain people possess and constitutes the apotheosis of individuality. Albert Einstein once observed, “Everything that is really great and inspiring is created by the individual who can labor in freedom.” In these terms, groups and the straitjacket of mainstream society are often thought to spell death for creativity. Many see the notion of group creativity as an oxymoron.

But let us think creatively here and challenge the basic assumption that the individual creator is the only critical component of the creative process. Indeed, let us consider the possibility that groups play an essential role in creativity—not only generating and shaping novel products but also ensuring their appreciation and impact. Although this idea might seem preposterous, it has garnered significant scientific support. Last year the three of us, with our colleague Lise Jans, published a review of much of the accumulated data in an article summarizing the current thinking about groups and creativity. We concluded that it is problematic and unhelpful to separate the creativity of individual minds from the communities in which they flourish.

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