Distrust and Creativity

A new research study* explores this question: Does being suspicious and distrustful make you more creative, or less? Common sense seems to provide two opposed possibilities. First, if you’re distrustful, it means that you’re thinking about nonobvious alternatives, and that sounds like creativity. But on the other hand, if you’re distrustful, you’ll be less likely to collaborate and share information, and that would make you less creative in the group settings where so much real-world creativity occurs.

The researchers manipulated a person’s level of distrust by “priming” them with an initial task, either to subliminally increase their distrust, or else to increase their trust, tendencies. They found that being primed to distrust has negative consequences for creativity in the public, social sphere. But when people were creating in private, priming their distrusting tendencies enhanced their creativity by enhancing their cognitive flexibility.

As with so much creativity research, it seems we’re talking about strategies rather than stable personality traits. The best way to be creative is to be adaptable; to modify your approach depending on the situation. If you’re working alone, be a little suspicious and explore alternative possibilities. If you’re in a group, open up and trust a bit more.

*Jennifer Mayer and Thomas Mussweiler (2011). “Suspicious spirits, flexible minds: When distrust enhances creativity.” JPSP, Vol. 101, No. 6, pp. 1262-1277.