Sweet solitude

switzerland1Recently I was involved in a survey rating classroom environments based how much they induced creativity. Encouraging students to work in groups was supposed to improve creativity according to this survey, but many instructors observed just the opposite happening. More unique ideas surfaced when the learners worked on projects individually.

Students collaborating in groups did not seem to be able to piggyback on each others’ ideas very easily to produce elaborate and sophisticated products. Sometimes everyone followed a leader’s instruction, but the leader rarely was the most creative person. Others spent time in long discussions, and then their work resembled that which had already been done before and was already familiar to all those in the group. In a few cases, there was disagreement which caused the end product to appear piecemeal and shoddy. But this seems to happen in the corporate world as well as in education.

Brainstorming has been touted as the way for groups to multiple creativity in the workplace. Groups sessions produce more ideas if people spend alone time considering and conceptualizing ideas first. However, the best performance as far as number and quality of ideas occurs when there is a brief group session followed by individuals brainstorming on their own. In research conducted in a manufacturing company a whopping 23 of 24 groups produced a greater quantity of high quality original ideas when brainstorming isolated and alone, than in groups (Dunnet et al, 1963).

In another experiment in which people worked on simulated work tasks, one group worked alone and the other worked in the presence of other  people. The results of those working in isolation were consistently judged more creative. It appears as if the very presence of others decreases creative output (Shalley 1995). This may be because we are unwilling to trying out new ideas and techniques that may flop in front of others.

Yet the survey I mentioned in the first paragraph assumed working in teams increased creativity. Why? Is this just another fad? Research has actually been done to discern why this mystique of greater creativity within teams exists despite so much evidence to the contrary. Allen and Hecht (2004)  have proposed it is the psychological benefits of teamwork contribute to this illusion. People with strong needs for social interaction feel more satisfied when working in a team, even if the results show lower quantity or quality of ideas. Teams have social appeal because inclusion in a team provides a sense of belonging. However, teams tend to enforce similar social behavior and thought in a manner more restrictive than that imposed by an individual leader of a group.  Belonging is based on conforming, and conformity is in essence the opposite of creativity.


Allen, Natalie J.  and Hecht, Tracy D.  (2004) The ‘romance of teams’: Toward an understanding of its psychological underpinnings and implications. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 77, 439–461.
Dunnette, Marvin D.; Campbell, John; and Jaastad, Kay. (1963) The effect of group participation on brainstorming effectiveness for 2 industrial samples. Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol 47(1), Feb 1963, 30-37.
Shalley, C. E. (1995) Effects of coaction, expected evaluation, and goal setting on creativity and productivity. Academy of Management Journal, 38, 483-503.
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