One-hit wonder: A study investigates why it is hard to sustain creativity.
Spanx, the iPhone, Post-it Notes, and two-day Prime shipping. The most popular innovations, which range from unique tools to ground-breaking business ideas, all share one thing: creativity. However, maintaining creativity can be challenging.
A recent study from Washington University in St. Louis’ Olin Business School, which was published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, has revealed one factor that may explain why some first-time creators find it difficult to repeat their initial creative productions while others continue to produce creative works.
Markus Baer, an Olin professor of organizational behavior, and Dirk Deichmann, a researcher at the Rotterdam School of Management in the Netherlands, found that rewarding first-time creators of novel ideas with awards or other forms of recognition can significantly reduce their likelihood to produce future creative work.
“In our study, we found that people who develop novel ideas and receive rewards for them start to see themselves primarily as a ‘creative person,’” Baer said.
“This newfound identity, which is special and rare, is then in need of protection. Essentially, once a person is in the creative limelight, stepping out of it — by producing a novel idea that disappoints or pales in comparison to earlier work — is threatening and to be avoided. One way to do so is to stop producing altogether. You cannot compromise your identity and reputation when you do not produce anything new.”
In other words, fear of failure the second time around can cause producers to avoid taking risks that would threaten their creative identity.
“Harper Lee is a perfect example of this phenomenon,” Baer said. “Her first book, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ is one of the bestselling and most acclaimed American novels of all time. Yet she didn’t publish again until 55 years later. And her second book, ‘Go Set a Watchman,’ written in the mid-1950s, is considered to be a first draft of her legendary one-hit wonder.”
About the research
Baer and Deichmann initially carried out an archival study of 224 first-time British cookbook writers in order to examine the impact earning an award or recognition had on first-time producers. Because cookbooks are creative works and labors of love, the study’s authors claim that the cookbook industry is the perfect context for studying sustained creativity. Just over half of first-time cookbook writers, according to their sample, went on to publish a second book. Fascinatingly, they observed that the more unique the first cookbook was, the less likely the author was to write a second cookbook.
Next, Baer and Deichmann conducted an experiment with business school students. Participants were asked to develop a concept for a potential cookbook. Half of the participants were told that their idea was “highly original and novel,” while the other half were told their idea was “very solid and traditional.” A subgroup of participants was also told that their ideas were “among the ideas most likely to make a big splash in the food community.”
Finally, participants had the option to develop a second cookbook concept or to build upon their original idea with a marketing plan. The experiment showed that when people produce a highly novel, award-winning idea, right out of the gate, they’re less likely to produce a follow-up idea.
A second experiment built upon the original and allowed the authors to more precisely pinpoint the psychological mechanisms at play. In the two experimental studies, the percentage of first-time producers who decided to develop a second idea, as opposed to exploiting the first idea, was 21 and 34, respectively.
“Participants experienced a greater threat to their creative identity when producers of award-winning, novel work were confronted with the possibility of having to continue on their creative journey by having to produce original work yet again,” the authors concluded.
Rethinking how managers recognize creativity
Creativity is most likely to blossom in environments where producers are motivated primarily by the challenge and meaning of the work itself — i.e., the problem they are trying to solve — and have some creativity-specific skills, such as associating or combining ideas from different knowledge domains, Baer said.
Previous research has focused on the benefits of awards, but Baer and Deichmann found that winning an award can, paradoxically, temper the creativity of producers because it introduces an extra layer of stress to the creative environment.
“Awards are only bad for people producing novel stuff because they make the creative identity of such people salient, causing them to feel threatened by the prospect of compromising this identity with mediocre work,” he said.
Baer offered the following strategies for avoiding the potential negative effects of awards and instead using them to encourage creativity:
- Make sure that rewards and recognition are not only offered for the outcome of the creative process — a new product — but also for the process of developing the outcome. For example: Have we challenged key assumptions? Have we tested our prototype properly?
- Reward both success and learning from failure. What becomes a success is difficult to predict and often entails a fair amount of luck. Thus, success and failure often lay close together. Learning from failure can be immensely beneficial and should be encouraged.
- Do not glorify someone who had one creative success by offering an outsized reward. If you want to glorify people, celebrate those who can produce creative work repeatedly.
Reference: “A recipe for success? Sustaining creativity among first-time creative producers” by Dirk Deichmann and Markus Baer, 12 May 2022, Journal of Applied Psychology.
I think that this is a simplistic and flawed conclusion. It is commonly accepted that mathematicians and physicists are most creative in their late-teens, early 20s. People seem to decline creatively as they age, as with most abilities. It also may be that the highly successful shift their priorities with age.
While there may be fear of failure, intelligent, logical people should also realize that there cannot be success if they don’t try.
The researchers “found that rewarding first-time creators of novel ideas with awards or other forms of recognition can significantly reduce their likelihood to produce future creative work.” Yet, they recommend rewarding failure. That is like saying they will view themselves as being judged failures by society and if they keep failing they will continue to be rewarded. Wouldn’t that reinforce the easy-to-accomplish failure? What’s wrong with this picture, other than being illogical?
This may all be as simple as luck. That is, having the right idea at the right time in history.