Tales of Steve Jobs’ “jerkiness” are legendary. Other iconic creative visionaries have similarly been known for their “difficult” personalities, from Sopranos creator David Chase to Thomas Edison. Anecdotally then, it seems like having what psychologists might call a “disagreeable personality” (i.e. scoring low on the “agreeableness dimension” of the Big Five Factor theory of personality) ought to help people be more creative.
Yet research to date has largely neglected this possibility and focused much more on the positive associations between creativity and another Big Five personality trait – openness to experience. In their new paper in the Journal of Business Psychology, Samuel Hunter and Lily Cushenberry suggest this oversight is due to the fact that psychologists have been preoccupied with studying idea generation. However, creativity is a social endeavour – if you want people to embrace your novel ideas, rather than brush them to one side, you need to be willing to put your ideas on the line in the first place, weather any negative feedback, and then have the strength of character to convince people why your ideas have merit. For these sharing and promotional aspects of creativity, Hunter and Cushenberry reasoned having a disagreeable personality may well be advantageous.
Just over 200 uni students first worked alone for ten minutes, typing out ideas for a marketing campaign for the online campus of their university. Then they formed groups of three and worked for 20 minutes as a group on a joint marketing plan. The students also all completed measures of their personality and their ability to come up with unusual uses for everyday objects (a basic test of idea generation).
A student’s level of disagreeableness on the personality measure (a high score on disagreeableness indicates a more “argumentative, egotistical, aggressive, headstrong and hostile” personality, the researchers said) was not related to their ability to come up with useful and original marketing ideas on their own (or their performance on the unusual uses test), but was related to how much their ideas tended to be taken up by their group. Moreover, this was especially the case when the group itself was made up of more disagreeable personalities. Stated colloquially, being a jerk isn’t advantageous for coming up with useful, original ideas, but it does seem to be advantageous for getting your ideas heard, especially in an environment consisting of pushy characters.
A second study largely backed this up, and showed again the importance of social context. Nearly three hundred students first spent time working alone coming up with ideas for a gift for their university campus (that would impress visitors). Next they shared their ideas with two other students who would subsequently form their group. In reality, these individuals were assistants working for the researchers and they gave either deliberately supportive or negative feedback to each participant (and to each other).
In the final stage, the participants worked with their two team members to come up with ideas for “a dorm room of the future” and here the supposed team members deliberately came up with either creative or boring suggestions to further simulate different working conditions. This research showed that having a disagreeable personality wasn’t associated with the students’ ability to come up with original ideas on their own, but was related to their being willing to share original ideas in a group context, especially when that context was harsh (with negative feedback flying around), and in a culture where other team members were coming up with quality ideas of their own.
There’s always a question mark over how much lab research like this, involving students, is likely to translate to the real world. Also, the observed benefits of disagreeableness were seen here over a very short space of time – it remains to be seen whether they would persist over weeks, months or years of working together. Nonetheless, the researchers said their findings suggest that being a ‘jerk’ may not be directly linked to who generates original ideas, “but such qualities may be useful if the situation dictates that a bit of a fight is needed to get those original ideas heard and utilised by others.”
Hunter, S., & Cushenbery, L. (2014). Is Being a Jerk Necessary for Originality? Examining the Role of Disagreeableness in the Sharing and Utilization of Original Ideas Journal of Business and Psychology, 30 (4), 621-639 DOI: 10.1007/s10869-014-9386-1
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