Is Group Creativity an Illusion?

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by: Yann Gourvennec

BPS Research published a paper on February 3rd, 2006 entitled “Why do we still believe in group brainstorming?“.

According to psychologists, the so-called “illusion of group creativity” is overwhelming. Still, there is this widespread belief that when gathered in a group, people come up with better and/or more ideas than working on their own. Some Amsterdam psychologists carried out an experiment which aimed at proving that point. Working in groups lifts off the pressure from people who find it easier than working on their own. Feeling less stressed does not mean that you are more productive however. Group work increases participants satisfaction too by reassuring them that other group members are having difficulties to find new ideas too (a phenomenon dubbed ’social comparison’. It also gives participants an illusion of creativity and performance through the generation of frantic collective activity. Such activity is also less stressful than being left with writer’s block in front a blank page with no ideas. [link to Bernard Nijstad’s bio].

UTA Professor Paul B. Paulus insists that “Group members do not have a good sense of the effectiveness of groups”. He believes that some of the problems shown in group creativity experiments can be solved via direct exchange of ideas through “computers or writing”. More information on Group creativity and links to other pages are available on Pr Paulus’s web page.

Less is said about the representativeness of the group and the fact that they may be led to the illusion that their opinions or assumptions are representative too. A major and almost fatal experiment in that area was carried out by a research company on behalf of Coca Cola in the late 1980’s and led to the near lethal transformation of the firm’s historical product. By letting a group imagine that a product was more suited to the taste of consumers in general because they had found it to their taste (at least in the particular cicumstance of a focus group session) the brand nearly forgot its own values and ran a risk of alienating its clientele. In the event, Coca Cola had to revert to the original product and suppress the so called “New Coke” product the taste of which was supposedly closer to that of Pepsi (ie sweeter).

Similarly, in Group creativity sessions, there is this risk that members of the group start imagining that what they feel or think is representative. Members often identify with a segment or sub-segment and end up believing that they are part of this segment although their personal behaviour may be very remote from that of a representative sample of the said segment or sub-segment. It is necessary that group creativity sessions be compared with other forms of research and data collection in order to avoid misinterpretations.

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