Let's Try to Think Inside the Box, Shall We?

"You know what the greatest talent in the world is?" asks the Hollywood bigshot in John Guare's terrific play The House of Blue Leaves. "To be an audience. Anybody can create." On the other hand, to be an audience...

But who wants that job? There aren't any awards in our culture for thinking inside the box, and most Americans are anxious to foster creativity everywhere they can—at work, at home, in themselves, in their kids. The more, the better, right?

Not really, say the psychologist Liane Gabora and her colleague Stefan Leijnen, an artificial intelligence researcher. When you're being creative, you aren't being swayed by the creations of others. Somebody else may have a spectacular idea, but if you're busy with your macaroni sculpture, you won't notice. And if everyone's like you, then no great innovation can spread.

Leijnen and Gabora recently built a simulated society to find the best balance between creation and imitation. They say it showed creativity helps a community when all members get a chance at both roles. In their model, the best ideas catch fire when everyone spends more than half their time listening, and the rest inventing. It's an abstract computer simulation, of course, but that does sound a little like traditional societies, where music, drawing and story-telling aren't specialized jobs.

The researchers did simulate specialist creativity—a society in which 30 percent of the population was creative all the time. For their ideas to be of any benefit to the whole group, though, the other 70 percent of the populace had to imitate all the time. Sounds unpleasant. Also, familiar.

Yes, this is a computational model that used simplified representations of creativity, imitation and success. Still, something feels right in the study's two implications: First, a culture that makes creativity into a special job for special people will alienate those who don't get to play; and, second, we might all be better off worrying less about being creative and more about being receptive. Be an audience. We might all be better off.


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