Creativity and the Law

I just returned from a fascinating event at Notre Dame Law School, the Creativity and the Law Symposium. Organized by Professor Mark McKenna, the symposium consisted of 14 presentations, most of them by intellectual property (IP) lawyers who are looking to psychological science to learn how IP law can best foster creativity and innovation.

The first thing I noticed was that all of these legal scholars accepted an instrumental view of IP law: that the purpose of IP law (which includes patent, copyright, and trademark) is to foster maximum societal innovation, for the good of all. I didn’t hear a peep about a competing view that you might call the property view: that my ideas and creations are my personal property, and I have an inalienable right to own them, just like I own my house or my classic BMW motorcycle. That’s fine with me, because I also believe that IP law should be designed to foster the maximum creativity of all. My own studies of creativity demonstrate how each new creation is always a rather small advance on the large body of knowledge and expertise that has come before, so being overly possessive about your own ideas is always an error.

Two information conversations stick in my mind: One with Professor Greg Mandel, of Temple University, who told me that many legal scholars had begun to draw on psychological research to inform the law. This move across disciplinary lines is similar to an earlier foray into economics; economics scholarship (particularly microeconomics and behavioral economics) has been influencing the law for some time now. Greg’s paper introduced the day’s symposium, and he drew on the sort of psychological research that I review in my book Explaining Creativity.

A second was with Abraham Drassinower, of the University of Toronto. In our conversation, we reflected on this whole endeavor, asking the question: What are the real-world implications for the law, of psychological research? After all, throughout history, law has never been based on scientific research. It has always been based on normative claims about human relations, it always involves culturally specific conceptions of the individual and his or her relationship to the collective.

In my talk, I described the “Western cultural model of creativity” and ten associated beliefs that are widely assumed in the United States (but which are not supported by research). I drew on the group genius of the assembled legal scholars, and for each of the ten beliefs, I asked them to tell me how current IP law was, or was not, based on these assumptions.

I share the approach of my legal colleagues: Our goal should be to align IP law with the way that creativity and innovation actually work, as revealed by empirical study. I was delighted to participate in this stimulating event.

America at Risk

On September 23, the National Academies published a depressing report; a follow up to their 2005 report Rising Above the Gathering Storm, called Rapidly Approaching Category 5.* For those of you who don’t live in the Southeastern part of the U.S., “Category 5” means the strongest, most dangerous type of hurricane.

The 2005 report argued that the U.S. risked losing its position at the top of the international economic order, because of failures to fund basic scientific research, and failures to develop excellent K-12 and college-level science and engineering education. The 2005 report was requested by a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators, and the report resulted in the 2007 “America Competes Act” which was passed by both houses of Congress and signed into law by President Bush, but which was never funded.

The new report concludes that “the outlook for America to compete for quality jobs has further deteriorated over the past five years.” The U.S. is still 6th place in innovation-based competitiveness, but 40th in the rate of change over the last ten years (that means everyone else is catching up fast). We are 11th place in the percentage of people who graduate from high school and 16th place in college completion rate; 27th place in the proportion of college students getting science or engineering degrees; 48th place in the quality of K-12 math and science education. The report recommends dramatic improvements in K-12 science and math education.

A New York Times editorial placed some of the blame on universities, saying “Too often, science curriculums are grinding and unimaginative, which may help explain why more than half of all college majors quit the discipline before they earn their degrees” (Oct. 26, 2010, p. A24). This is why I have become involved in discussions surrounding the future of engineering education.

And it’s why I am so committed to my own research on creativity and learning. The U.S. needs solid, research-based findings about exactly how to improve science and math education, both K-12 and university, so that it results in the kind of learning needed in today’s innovation economy. I have called this “educating for innovation”; it is perhaps a bit sad that I receive more speaking invitations on this topic in Europe and in Asia than I do in the U.S. In the United Kingdom, creativity is a mandatory part of the National Curriculum for K-12 schools. Where is creativity in American schools? It is relegated to arts, music, and theater programs (if those haven’t been cut already due to budget woes).

We need creative education in math, science, and engineering. There are reasons to be optimistic: this new report was generated by our nation’s top scholars and researchers, indicating a deep awareness of the problem; the National Science Foundation has been committed to these issues for many years already; and, research in the learning sciences is thriving and generating exciting new knowledge every day. At some point in the near future, I hope that these positive efforts align together and result in a real change in how we educate our students.

**Rising above the gathering storm: Rapidly approaching category 5.” National Academies.

Happy People Have Have Better Conversations

A new study* shows that happier people spend more time in deep, substantial conversations. The researchers asked 79 undergraduates to wear a specially designed digital audio recorder. Every 12 1/2 minutes, the recorder turned itself on and recorded exactly 30 seconds of audio. Each person wore the recorder for four days, resulting in a mountain of data. The research team listened to every single 30-second clip, and marked whether the person was alone, or was engaged in a conversation. And if they were conversing, the research team marked whether the conversation was “uninvolved and banal” or whether it was “an involved conversation of a substantive nature.” Then, they had all 79 people complete a questionnaire about their level of happiness (psychologists have several standard measures for “subjective well being”) and also complete a personality trait questionnaire.

The results: Happier people spend less time alone and more time talking with others. And happier people spent less time in small talk, and more time in substantive conversations. Compared to the most unhappy people, the happiest people spent 25% less time alone, 70% more time talking, and twice as much time in substantive conversations!

When the researchers controlled for personality traits, these relationships were just as strong–showing that the happiness differences are not due to personality differences.

This study reminded me of my 2001 book Creating Conversations, which explores the creativity of everyday conversation. Creativity researchers have found a connection between engaging in creative acts and increased happiness, and good conversations are deeply creative, so this new study confirms what we know about creativity and conversation.

The researchers caution that the study does not prove causality–they don’t know whether the happiest people start out being happy, and then choose to engage in substantive conversation, or whether they start out engaging in substantive conversation and that then makes them happier. It’s probably a complex feedback loop, where causality works both ways. In any case, if you’d like to be a bit happier, it couldn’t hurt to spend more time with others, and try to go for more serious conversations.

*Eavesdropping on Happiness : Well-Being Is Related to Having Less Small Talk and More Substantive Conversations. Mehl, Vazire, Holleran, & Clark, Psychological Science, 2010, 21, 539.