Does Solitude Enhance Creativity?



Susan Cain's claims for introversion and creativity are not supported by the research.

I've just read a New York Times article by Susan Cain, author of the forthcoming book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. It's the frustrated cry of a true introvert. Cain is clearly tired of everyone touting the benefits of collaboration; some people, herself included, just want to be left alone. And, she argues, those are the people who really come up with all of the great ideas.

There's a grain of truth to Cain's claim: Psychologists who study creativity know that it requires both solitude and collaboration. Exceptional creativity involves a lot of hard work, and that often happens in solitude. But Cain misses the big picture: Researchers have found that breakthrough ideas are largely due to exchange and interaction, and that's because breakthrough ideas always involve combinations of very different ideas. (Matt Ridley famously calls it "ideas having sex.")

In 2007, my book Group Genius was partly responsible for what Susan Cain calls dismissively "the rise of the new groupthink." So I feel like I've been called out to respond. Yes, solitude plays a role in the creative process, but Cain overstates her case and misrepresents some of the research. Here are five specific examples of misleading or incorrect statements in her article:

1. Cain says that research by Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi found that exceptional creators are more likely to be introverted. Csikszentmihalyi was my graduate advisor, so I know that what his research actually found is that "Creative people tend to be both extroverted and introverted....[they] exhibit both traits simultaneously." Reviewing all of the studies of creativity and extroversion using the "five-factor" personality model, most studies don't show any relation between creativity and either introversion or extraversion. A few studies show a small relation, and for those, it's always a positive relation between creativity and extraversion. (see my book Explaining Creativity for the details.)

2. Cain argues that Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple with Steve Jobs, is a classic introvert and he's the one who actually invented the Apple personal computer. She grants that Wozniak never would have had the idea if he hadn't been exchanging ideas with the Homebrew Computer Club, and he knows that Wozniak's computer never would have been built and sold if it weren't for his collaboration with Steve Jobs. It's true that Wozniak had to go home and build the thing alone...but the real creativity came from collaboration.

And the Macintosh computer--which was a much more innovative product, with the graphic user interface that the one we still use today--resulted from Steve Jobs' networking and idea exchange with Xerox PARC, the lab where the windows-and-mouse technology was first demonstrated. No solitude story there.

3. Cain is critical of the new trend of using collaborative groups in school classrooms. But in the New York Times article, she doesn't give any reasons to dislike this, and doesn't cite any research on the topic (maybe she will in the forthcoming book). Collaboration and learning is one of my research topics, so I know that there's a huge volume of evidence--going back three decades--showing that collaborative interaction enhances learning. Of course, it has to be done in the right way, and no doubt there are teachers who form student groups in ineffective ways, but you can't base an argument on a few ineffective teachers.

Regarding learning and mastery, Cain cites Anders Ericsson's expertise research correctly; that research shows it takes 10,000 hours of mostly solitary practice to become an expert. And I too have argued that this is a prerequisite to a creative life. But that's not where new ideas come from; that's just the base of knowledge you need before you're able to play the game, to combine great ideas and to recognize good ideas.

4. Cain argues that the "Coding War Games" study shows that solitary computer programmers perform better than programmers that don't get any privacy. But I've done studies of pair programming--a core technique of the popular approach known as "extreme coding"--and the research convincingly demonstrates that pair programming results in better computer programs.

5. Cain is absolutely right about the research showing that brainstorming groups generate fewer ideas than the same number of solitary people working alone. But there's an important exception to this research: if the problems are complex, or if they are visual or spatial, then groups usually outperform solo workers. And in most real-world organizations, problems are pretty complex--not the simple word-generation tasks used in brainstorming experiments.

Cain has read a broad range of important research, and she gets some things right. And she's smart enough to realize that the more defensible position is that you need both solitude and collaboration. But in her desire to elevate the role of solitude, Cain's article misrepresents the research. And the research has found just the opposite: collaboration is the key to creativity.

There must be a lot of introverts out there, because when I looked at her book on today, it's one of the top 100 best selling books. Cain's book will no doubt appeal to those readers who enjoy solitary work, who've sat in endless time-wasting meetings, who did a group project in high school with a bunch of slackers...come to think of it, that pretty much describes everyone, including me! But don't let yourself be misled by your own bad experiences with groups. The science of creativity shows that exceptional, successful creativity depends on groups, networks, and conversation. If you hole up alone at home, you will be less creative.

Tags: brainstorming, collaboration, groupthink, learning, solitude

Recommended for you

October 26, 2016 Unraveling Human Excellence
October 06, 2016 Does Giftedness Matter?
September 13, 2016 Is Inspiration Contagious?
blog comments powered by Disqus