Think Creative? Think People, and Culture…


By Rowena Kong

Which would you do better at: detecting similarities amongst a group of items, or brainstorming an original title for a thriller movie? Chances are, your level of performance on these two representative measures of creativity can be influenced by the social environment around you, and particularly by the behaviour and backgrounds of the people with whom you interact. One study by Ashton-James and Chartrand (2009) showed that the effect of social interaction on creativity occurred through the activation of thinking styles. The authors hypothesised that mimicry of participants’ behaviour without their awareness would induce a convergent thinking style, and that a divergent thinking style would be observed when participants were not mimicked. Indeed, the outcome revealed that the mimicry condition led to higher scores on a convergent thinking task (pattern recognition) while the non-mimicry condition produced better performance on a divergent thinking task (generation of novel product labels).

It can therefore be seen that our style of thinking affects our creative problem-solving skills, and the research literature has identified two thinking styles (convergent and divergent), each of which stimulates different domains of our cognition (Guilford, 1959). Convergent thinking is associated with the social side of creativity; for example, the ability to effectively collaborate and coordinate with others in generating solutions to problems from a relational angle (Bahar & Hansell, 2000; Larey & Paulus, 1999). On the other hand, divergent thinking involves stretching the limits of one’s perspectives and broadly crossing over various themes and categories to come up with unusual and extraordinary ideas (Guilford, 1959). Our tendency to engage in either thinking style can be influenced by the social demands of the situation and the people with whom we work (Brewer, 1996; Nemeth & Kwan, 1987; Schwarz, 1990; Tedeschi & Nacci, 1976). When team members share similar knowledge and cultural backgrounds, smooth collaboration tends to facilitate convergent thinking. Conversely, when members differ in a number of aspects such as skills and outside group membership, they are likely to engage in divergent thinking and therefore to produce innovative and novel outcomes (Arndt, Routledge, Greenberg & Sheldon, 2005; Ashton-James & Chartrand, 2009; De Dreu, 2007; Nemeth, 1986).

In applying such concepts and findings to the cultural environment, one might hypothesise that divergent thinking style would be utilized to a greater degree by people who endorse the independent self-concept than by those who are more interdependent. Westerners who are of European descent tend to be fairly independent and perceive themselves as distinct and unique from one another, each person having his or her own identity that is defined separately from others or the group. Westerners also often tend to have a greater preference for interpersonal distance; meanwhile, in the East, in-group members’ shared identity and bonding are prioritised and made a larger part of everyday life (Sussman & Rosenfeld, 1982). On a larger scale, Western societies also tend to produce more breakthrough innovations of novel concepts and inventions than do Eastern societies (Heine, 2012). Westerners’ scores were also higher on a number of studies assessing Easterners and Westerners’ creativity based on their divergent thinking performances (Niu & Sternberg, 2002).  One study of Asian American participants’ creativity reported that those who were more assimilated to the American culture produced more novel solutions in divergent thinking tasks under the cues of said culture than did those who were less assimilated and low in bicultural identity integration (Mok & Morris, 2010).

Additionally, studies of implicit theories of creativity in East-Asian Chinese populations have revealed one conceptual view of creativity that may not be shared by these societies’ Western counterparts: an emphasis on creativity for the benefit of the community. Creativity is often culture-specific and more group-oriented or convergent in East-Asian societies, whereas, in the West, it tends to be more individualistic and self-directed. The cultural variation of the concept of creativity also calls into question the universality and validity of divergent thinking tests in gauging a person’s true creative aptitude. Perhaps it would be more helpful to test Easterners on their convergent thinking capacity as well.


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