Bryan Caplan  

Individual Creativity

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An Implausible Randian Correla... Samwick, Thoma, and Pearlstein...

So this is why I always hated working in groups!


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T.R. Elliott writes:

I say the evidence is pretty slim in this study. It probably says more about social scientists needing ways to spend money.

I worked in a company that went from about 500 to 13,000 employees in a few years, is now a fortunate 500, had projects as small as a few people, and as large as 500 (e.g. a low earth orbitting satellite system and a terrestrial wireless basestation system).

And what has my experience told me?: That different people work better in different environments. A good leader can in fact draw very creatively and productively from a group. Perhaps your inability to work in groups says as much about your leadership skills and ability to interact with other people than it does about creativity and productivity per se. Your style may be to work alone.

I have found that those who work alone occasionally come up with some brilliant ideas, and in fact a lot of the creativity and exploration can productively take place along. But in fact a lot of people who work alone go off into the weeds. In fact, most do. So in fact overall productivity is often increased by bringing people together quite frequently. And when people work alone, the creative and interesting ideas they come up with are often inappropriate in many ways to the problem at hand.

The problem with studies like this is that they are largely worthless and not worth the time reading. But I suspect there is a class of non-productive people who spend lots of time reading studies such as this instead of doing something productive.

Jody writes:

Though not willing to plunk down $25 to read the paper to verify this, I suspect that both T.R. and the researchers are correct. Why? Different metrics.

Specifically, I think the the researchers are measuring "creativitiy" - the sum over the group of the number of ideas produced by each individual - whereas T.R. (and the rest of the world) is measuring "productive creativity" - the value of the ideas produced by the group.

T.R. Elliott writes:

Jody: What you say makes sense. It seems reasonable that there is an inventive for people to be more creative individually because there is greater focus on what they individually produce. And my experience agrees with the assessment that many people will piggy back on group brainstorming efforts.

So once again I throw mud when I should speak more cautiously. Shame on me.

Anyway, there is a whole class of idiots, in my mind, who buy into the brainstorming concept without any real understanding of a particular problem domain. They bring people to meetings, distribute crayons, and similar such nonsense. This is not a problem with brainstorming. It's a problem with allowing incompetents to assume any leadership or influential role at all. Unfortunately, my experience has shown that incompetence if often rewarded in the short-term. Long-term, reality usually sets things straight.

Brainstorming or group problem solving is a great way to inculcate newer members of a team into the constraints and parameters by which the organization thinks, how to solve problems, tradeoffs between theoretical correctness and practical matters such as implementation, and similar issues.

On the incentives note, it is important to point out that a strong leader can incentivize individual performance within a group setting by drawing on and drawing out individual strengths.

Human society is a community of individuals. Libertarians often forget the community part and overemphasize the individual side. Communists of course do the opposite. Both are wrong.

James writes:

T.R.

I have to take exception to your remark that, "libertarians often forget the community part and overemphasize the individual side."

Nearly everything I've seen in the libertarian literature is about ethics (normative positions on interpersonal interactions), economics (positive views about interpersonal interactions), and particularly the economics and ethics of markets (a system of social cooperation).

Libertarians don't forget about communities. We just happen to reject outright any claims to the effect that some people are entitled to initiate violence against others just because such an intitiation of violence is supposed to serve some extra entity whether it be known as "the community," or "the forces of history," or "the greater good," or "the nation," etc.

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