Some years ago, the Gordon Kaufman Professor and an associate professor of work and organization studies at MIT Sloan, picked up a copy of The New Yorker and began reading an article about creativity. It took only a few paragraphs before he drew back in a mix of surprise and disbelief. The journalist was describing several new scientific studies that argued criticism might be a boon to creativity. How could that be? Since first elaborated in 1948, the process of creative brainstorming has been tethered inextricably to one central commandment: do not criticize.
“For many decades, the ground rule has been to prohibit negative feedback while generating creative options,” Curhan, who is the faculty director of MIT's Behavioral Research Lab, said. “This is ingrained in the way the work gets done.”
Fortunate for Curhan, this inversion of conventional wisdom presented an empirical question. Does criticism, in fact, improve creativity? And, if so, under what conditions? With Tatiana Labuzova, a doctoral student at MIT Sloan, and Aditi Mehta, a former doctoral student at MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, now assistant professor at the University of Toronto, Curhan devised two experiments to explore these questions. They ultimately found that when the setting is cooperative, criticism can boost creativity, whereas in competitive or adversarial settings, criticism should be prohibited.
The results are reported in “Cooperative Criticism: When Criticism Enhances Creativity in Brainstorming and Negotiation.”
The central experiment took place in the context of MIT’s planned expansion into nearby Kendall Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a long-term construction project with deep relevance to the university and the surrounding community. Over the course of many meetings involving hundreds of participants from inside and outside MIT, Curhan and his colleagues recruited people to brainstorm ideas for the project under carefully devised experimental conditions. The experiment was run separately from MIT’s community engagement process about the project. Roughly half of the brainstorming groups were told, “Experts have long advised that criticism is bad for brainstorming, so please be careful not to criticize anyone else’s ideas.” The other half were told, “Contrary to conventional wisdom about brainstorming, most recent studies about brainstorming suggest that you should feel free to criticize each other’s ideas as you list them on the flipchart.” Groups were further split into cooperative and competitive conditions. Groups in the cooperative condition were informed that their sole responsibility was to come up with ideas, whereas groups in the competitive condition needed not only to come up with ideas, but also to highlight one of those ideas as the most promising.
The result: In a cooperative context, teams that were encouraged to criticize each other performed better than teams that were encouraged to withhold criticism, both in terms of the number of ideas they generated (16% more) and the quality of the ideas (17% more creative, as rated by outside observers). In the competitive condition, the opposite was true; groups that were encouraged to criticize generated 16% fewer ideas that were rated as 23% less creative. Overall, cooperative teams that criticized were the most creative.
“One of the defining features of this work is that it took place in a real-world situation, in which the creative ideas were very important to the people and community involved,” Curhan said. “We weren’t asking people how many uses they could come up with for a brick, which is a common question used to assess creativity in lab studies, but about issues that mattered to them personally.”
That said, Curhan and his colleagues also used a lab study to control for the kind of criticism that people offered, providing evidence against the possibility that criticism was simply more constructive in the cooperative meetings and less constructive in the competitive meetings. In a negotiation scenario between a union and corporate management, the researchers offered uniform criticism to every participant. Even with the type of criticism held constant, they again found that criticism benefitted creativity in a collaborative context (two union members brainstorming solutions together) and detracted from it when people were pitted against each other (one representative from the union and one from management brainstorming together).
What this means for running a brainstorming session or negotiation
Though most environments in which creative problem-solving takes place are neither purely cooperative nor purely competitive — both self-interest and mutual-interest are present to varying degrees — it would behoove facilitators of a brainstorming session to try to influence perceptions. “You might give the parties a reminder like, ‘I just want to reiterate that we’re on the same team, and that we all benefit if this project succeeds,’” Curhan said. “That way everybody’s fates are cooperatively aligned.”
If a statement like that is credible, then criticism can and should be part of the process, as it helps creativity flourish. If a compelling case cannot be made for cooperation among parties — that is, if the setting is inherently adversarial — then criticism should be prohibited, as it undermines group creativity.
“Context really matters when it comes to the rules one should apply in brainstorming,” Curhan said.