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Why Being Politically Correct Fosters More Creative Ideas

Diverse groups produce more creative solutions, but only when they acknowledge and try to eliminate stereotypes.

Why Being Politically Correct Fosters More Creative Ideas
[Photo: Flickr user Alessandro Prada]

Politically correctness seems, on first glance, like an office banter buzzkill. When everyone’s worried about who might be offended by an edgy joke or off-color remark, creativity suffers.

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Right?

Wrong. Recent research found the opposite. Researchers Jack A. Goncalo of Cornell University, Jennifer Chatman of University of California, Berkeley, Michelle Duguid, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis and Jessica A. Kennedy of Vanderbilt University set out to find the effect of bias-awareness and political correctness on brainstorming groups.

The researchers had students, in groups of three, think of new ideas for how to use vacant campus space. Control groups of all men, all women, and mixed gender were given no further instructions. Test groups were first told to take 10 minutes to list examples of political correctness they’d observed on campus.

The same sex test groups did, in fact, have a less productive brainstorming session following the prompt. But the mixed-gender groups performed better after the PC-awareness prompt. “They generated more ideas, and those ideas were more novel,” Duguid told NPR. “Whether it was two men and one woman or two women and one man, the results were consistent.”

Why did diverse, politically-correct-minded groups perform better than the rest? The key was in getting their differences and common group out in the open, before they were asked to contribute. Men might be unsure of what’s considered sexist or insensitive, while the women could fail to speak up for a variety of reasons–such as being seen as overly assertive.

One of the biggest ways companies can put good diversity intentions into action is uncovering those biases that hold everyone back. But a second experiment from Duguid and Prof. Melissa Thomas-Hunt of the University of Virginia also throws a spin on the notion that more awareness equals less stereotyping: They found that when stereotypes became an accepted–albeit, negative–societal norm, behaviors weren’t likely to change.

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It was when their study participants were actively told to put a stop to their stereotyping that they ended biased reactions. “I think most people want to be unbiased, and there are ways we can try to make that happen,” Duguid said. Silently accepting that unconscious biases happen won’t change the current corporate landscape; this research shows that speaking up about it, and then actively condemning it, is the way to end gender stereotyping.

About the author

Freelance tech, science and culture writer. Find Sam on the Internet: @samleecole.

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