Creative Differences: Diversity Enhances Creative Performance

When asked to describe ourselves, we usually do not answer with a list of our physical traits, rather, we tend to mention which groups we identify with. These groups (or social identities) may include a particular ethnic group, religious affiliation, or a sport we participate in. There are times when we identify with one of our social identities more so than others. Previous research has suggested that creative ideas result from a blending of existing knowledge sets which initially appeared to be completely unrelated to one another. Psychologist Chi-Ying Cheng from Singapore Management University, along with Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks and Fiona Lee from the University of Michigan wanted to see if simultaneously identifying with multiple social identities (and thus all of their knowledge systems) would result in increased creativity.

The researchers conducted two studies involving participants with multiple social identities, Asian-Americans and female engineers. First, the researchers measured the degree to which the participants identified with both of their social identities, also known as, their level of “identity integration.”).  Then, The Asian-American participants were asked to come up with creative recipes using either American ingredients, Asian ingredients or a combination of the two.  In the second study, the researchers asked female engineering students to design a mobile communication device for either women or college students.

The findings, reported in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, reveal that being able to draw on two or more social identities increases creativity. In the first experiment, Asian-Americans who thought of themselves as being both Asian and American were able to come up with more creative recipes than those who thought of themselves as being either more Asian or more American. This same group also showed more creativity when asked to useboth American and Asian ingredients. Similarly, the female engineering students who identified themselves as both a female and an engineer came up with more creative concepts for the communications devices.

The authors note that “identity integration increases when individuals recall positive experiences related to having multiple identities.” These results have important implications for the business world and suggest that employing a diverse workforce, consisting of employees who rate highly in identity integration, may promote creativity and innovation, which are essential for success.

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