What do racism and lack of creativity have in common? According to a new study from Tel Aviv University – quite a lot. As it turns out, people who are of a racist mindset were less creative when put to the test.
“Although these two concepts concern very different outcomes, they both occur when people fixate on existing category information and conventional mindsets,” researcher Carmit Tadmor and her colleagues write in an article published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
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Racism, or “racial essentialism,” is basically the view that racial groups possess underlying essences that represent deep-rooted, unalterable traits and abilities. The researchers hypothesized that, once activated, an essentialist mindset would lead to a reluctance to consider alternative perspectives, resulting in a generalized closed-mindedness.
Triggering racism kills creativity
The researchers manipulated participants’ beliefs about racial essentialism by having them read one of three articles: one that described fictitious scientific research supporting racial essentialist (racist) beliefs, one that described fictitious research supporting racial nonessentialist beliefs, or one about the scientific properties of water.
The participants then took a commonly used test of creativity called the Remote Associates Test. The participants were given three distinct words and they had to identify a single target word that linked the three words together. So, for example, given the words “manners,” “round,” and “tennis,” the correct answer would be “table.”
The researchers found that participants primed with an essentialist viewpoint were less creative, solving significantly fewer of the word problems correctly than participants in the other two groups.
Results may help devise a preemptive strike
A follow up study added further explanation to the results, by showing that racial essentialism and decreased creativity could be explained, at least in part, by an increase in closed-mindedness.
Together, these studies suggest that essentialism exerts its negative effects on creativity by changing how people think, as opposed to changing what they think. This finding fits with previous research on information processing and creativity.
Despite the results being quite preliminary, researchers speculate that there may be a way to implement them for educational purposes. Tadmor and colleagues speculate that it might be possible to use these findings to devise an intervention program that reduces racial essentialist beliefs, thereby leading participants not only to become more socially tolerant but also to unleash their creative potential in the process.
Co-authors on this research include Melody M. Chao of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology; Ying-yi Hong of Nanyang Business School, Nanyang Technological University and Beijing Normal University; and Jeffrey T. Polzer of Harvard University.
Photo by Daviniodus