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Not Believing in Stereotypes Can Make You More Creative

2012 July 31
by Eric Horowitz

If you were a middle-class kid from the suburbs, you’re familiar with the day in elementary school when a community theater group comes in to teach you about the evils of stereotypes (through the magic of the stage!). The lesson was an important one, but a new study suggests that the reason why may be different from what you think. According to two researchers from the University of Kent, when a stereotype is disconfirmed (e.g. female mechanic), it can lead to more flexible thinking and more creativity.

We expected that because exposure to people who disconfirm stereotypes compels students to think “out of the box”, they will subsequently not only rely less on stereotypes, but in more general thinking rely less on easily accessible knowledge structures and be more flexible and creative. As predicted, being encouraged to think counter-stereotypically not only decreased stereotyping, but also, on a divergent creativity task, lead to the generation of more creative ideas – but only for individuals who initially reported a lower Personal Need for Structure.

The finding is fairly intuitive. If you think 30% of old Italian men are mobsters rather than 90%, your brain is going to have to do more creative thinking to create a profile of those 60%.

One another note, one reason I’m optimistic about the future of psychology is that I think we’ll eventually know enough to routinely find these “kill two birds with one stone” situations. Some of them already exist — for example, manipulating lay theories and regulatory orientations can have a variety of positive effects — and as psychologists improve their grasp of the higher-level processes that drive our thoughts and decisions I think we’ll learn about many more. When you figure out how to approach situation with the right outlook, mindset, and thought process, you’ll do better at whatever occurs in that situation.
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Goclowski, M.A., & Crisp, R.J. (2012). On counter-stereotypes and creative cognition: When interventions for reducing prejudice can boost divergent thinking Thinking Skills and Creativity DOI: 10.1016/j.tsc.2012.07.001

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