What social processes encourage creativity in groups? (Cognitive Science)

Essay #2 | PHIL 447 – Cognitive Science Advanced Seminar in Consciousness with Dr. Paul Thagard | 03DEC13

1. The issue.
Creativity is one of the hallmarks of the human mind. Consciousness is seen as being a key part of the explanation for many types of creativity and problem solving. (Blackmore, 316) Creation in the human mind can happen in two key ways: consciously through focused thinking on a problem, and the oft-cited unconscious eureka moment. We are starting to see how great creative thinkers are often the product of their context. It is acknowledged now that groups or teams of people can produce exceptionally creative ideas and solutions to problems. If groups are creative, then what are the social processes that encourage creativity?

Creativity is often studied in the cognitive science disciplines by looking at the workings of the brains of individuals. Creativity is defined by Susan Blackmore as “complex neural networks adjusting their connections in novel ways” and these novel new connections are ideas that are useful and original (278). It is becoming clearer how this neural process works in individuals with research by Paul Thagard and Terrence Stewart looking at creativity as a process of convolution (Thagard & Stewart , 2010). This research suggests that creativity is a twisting together of existing representations- convolution- that gives neurological credence to Blackmore’s view.

Creativity is highly tied to the study of consciousness, especially if considered under the lens of recent work in understanding semantic pointer competition. As described by Thagard and Stewart, consciousness is the result of three neural mechanisms: representation by firing patterns, binding of firing patterns into semantic pointers and competition of these semantic pointers. (Thagard & Stewart, 2) This results in availability of important information about a current state, or consciousness, in an organism. (Thagard & Stewart, 2) Semantic pointer competition helps to specify how convolution and connections work in consciousness, and therefore also in creativity. Creativity that results in original and useful ideas is a matter of combining existing representations of the world. For this, it requires the creator to have diverse representations of the world in order to develop new ideas, and systems that encourage competition among many binded possibilities (semantic pointers) in order to choose the best one. This process results in a creative outcome.
Looking at creativity in individuals as the product of neural networks is essential if we are to look at groups as creative. Groups of people can be thought of as networks as well. The individuals are the nodes and there are interactions between the nodes. (Blackmore, 259) Typically when we think of groups we might think of product development teams like those at the design firm IDEO, conceptual development teams at video game firms like Valve, or high-performance research teams at universities. These are all examples of small creative groups, but we might also think of a society as an extended group with the capability of being creative. Why are some cities or communities more creative than others? If people are creative because their brains are made up of neural networks, then it would be reasonable to draw the analogy that groups made up of networks of people might also be creative.
In this case, it would be useful to figure out what processes encourage creativity. Are there social processes that allow groups to hold lots of representations, combine those representations in meaningful ways, and choose the best of those combinations in the most reliable ways? In this essay I will present various alternatives for social processes that might encourage creativity and will attempt to tie them back to how creativity happens in individual minds.
Groups of conscious people often work together to solve problems, practical or otherwise. This problem solving takes the form of creativity. Creativity is a hallmark of what it means to be conscious and so it may be the case the certain creative groups of people can be thought of as conscious systems. These creative processes can be emergent or demergent. Group creativity can sometimes deliver solutions that are either more or less creative that the sum of the creative individuals making up the groups. I would like to explore a number of alternatives of group structures in order to explore which are more creative. I will argue that small groups of people can be structured to be highly creative in a non-trivial way. I will attempt to explain why these particular structures are helpful in the context of how we understand creativity to operate in individuals.
2. Alternatives.
I have identified a number of different alternatives for social processes that encourage creativity in groups. I have split these possibilities into three major considerations. The first is that creativity does not happen in groups but in individuals. The second main alternative is that creativity happens in individuals in very large groups. The third is that creativity happens even in small groups and that there are a number of factors that can encourage it.
A. Creativity is individual
This first extreme alternative must be considered. There is a possibility that creativity simply does not happen in groups of any size and is purely individualistic. This would suggest that group creativity is simply an illusion, that it is the product of individual minds in a group. Perhaps working alongside others in fact has not positive or negative effect on the creativity of the individual. The more common argument would be that groups dilute the creative potential of individual members. It would suggest that in any group there is a creative maverick that does the majority of the production of novel and useful ideas and the rest of the group only supports in terms of implementation. This would align more with an individualistic view of creation. There is no doubt that individuals are capable of being creative. But the lone genius concept is a myth, any ‘great’ individual is often supported by some kind of creative team for support and feedback. (Kelley, 70) Whether groups of people only dampen individual creative potential is a valid question.
B. Distributed nature of groups- creativity happens in creative societies
Before looking at small groups it is interesting to note that different societies can be thought of to be more creative or innovative than others. Can a large group be thought of as creative? How are certain large groups of people more creative than others? An MIT conference workshop from 2003 tried to seek out reasons for this. They attributed the creative variability that societies have to invent new things, to institutionalize the use of these inventions, and adapt of inventions from other cultures. (MIT, 4) They claim that the key to inventive creativity in a society lies in its culture, social priorities, and public policies. (MIT, 4) It is a about a series of complex, intertwined social systems that set incentives for meaningful creativity. The United States could be thought of as one of the most creative societies in history in terms of industry and culture. Clay Shirky defends this in his book Cognitive Surplus and suggests that it is something similar to the rules outlined above and the new tools of connectivity above that is allowing for creativity to operate on a new large scale. He claims that we stand on the edge of a new era of creativity with the internet by “connecting islands of time and talent” that were previously unconnected. (Shirky, 29) This also speaks to the structures that allow for creativity to prosper, but what are the fundamental elements that contribute to creativity in a large group? One might look to Sir Isaac Newton’s quotes about how he “stood on the shoulders of giants” in regards to his scientific innovation. Creativity happens individually for certain, one can look to how people isolated from a larger society are able to come up with ingenious survival techniques. But creativity is not isolated from society, individuals are creative by using knowledge taught to them by a society and creative ideas are validated by a society. Newton was a product of his society. It seems likely that creativity happens in a social context, at least at this scale. (Ogle, 97) This can inform seeing creativity as individualistic within this context or possible within the groups.
C. Creativity can happen in small groups
If creativity seems to happen at the individual level and at the society level of groups, there is a strong possibility that it may also happen in smaller groups. I would describe small groups as those made up of 12 or fewer members who are assembled to work on specific problems or projects. These would not be communities like firms or universities so much, but product oriented and likely temporary teams. There is compelling evidence that small groups of people are able to come up with creative products. We can think of many famous examples like IDEO design firm, the Xerox PARC innovation group, or Lockheed’s “Skunk Works” which designed many of World War II’s greatest fighter planes. (Sawyer, 152) It seems that these collaborations of great minds exhibited emergent properties that the teams of people working together were more effective than any one individual working alone.
Social processes in societies seem to encourage creativity, and individuals seem to be creative. In this section I will identify and explain a number of different structural alternatives that may contribute to making small groups of individuals creative. In the evidence section I will attempt to tie them back to our understanding of the systems of individual creativity in order to attempt to come to an understanding of why they might work.
C1. Brainstorming- openness
The most popular objection to the idea that small groups can’t be creative is that the phenomenon of “group think”. This is basically the phenomenon where a group of individually intelligent can get on a same track of bad thinking or sorely conventional think through a feedback process. (Sawyer, 66) It is part of a larger notion that “design by committee” does not work because too many opinions will make a worthwhile synthesis exceedingly difficult. (Sawyer, 66)This is a popular response to the notion that groups might be creative in the first place. The culprit for the “design by committee” effect is often seen as brainstorming. Some argue that brainstorming doesn’t work. (Sawyer, 64) Research suggests this notion that the original notion of open-ended, criticism free idea generation process produces lots of ideas of minimal originality or value. (Sawyer, 62) But there is hope for this basic notion of group insight to operate as an effective social process for creativity. Brainstorming that is focused on particular questions and that is free of critique but honed around the specific purpose of generating good ideas generate. (Kelley, 56) Essentially what brainstorming offers is an opportunity to rapidly make group knowledge explicit. This is useful to bring out the diversity of knowledge that team members might hold in the short time frame of group work. As a social process, it is a good first step to generating representations. If focused, it might be a useful social process for small groups.
C2. Creativity through writing- distributed cognition
Printing is sometimes seen as the catalyst for the enlightenment, scientific revolution, industrial revolution and our current information revolution (Ogle, 184). The ability to share and spread knowledge is essential in a creative society, and allows individuals to gain richer representations developed by others instead of having to build all knowledge from scratch. What printing allows is for networks to be more tightly integrated through information storage and dissemination. (Ogle, 206) Writing or drawing could be a key social process for small group creativity analogous to printing in societies. The ability to store group knowledge and communicate it through writing or drawing, particularly in brainstorming processes, allows the group to develop a rich grouping of representations. This could be described as developing a spatial memory where the group can commonly manipulate representations. (Kelley, 59) It seems that group need a common storage space or memory from which to work from. Whiteboards or sticky notes are often used for this.
C3. Creativity through trust – not criticizing ideas
Ideas that are novel are often the least expected and are typically unusual in the context of their creation. This creates an opportunity in a group situation for new ideas to be trampled by group convention. (Sawyer, 66) While focus is essential to group creativity in order to generate useful ideas, it is important not to introduce criticism too early. (Kelley, 57) Creative individuals are often cited as allowing their individual eccentricity to shine, not to be censored by society. Groups offer the opportunity for individuals to build on each others individualistic creativity if criticism is avoided in the divergent stage. An element of playfulness seems to be important.
C4. Creativity through diversity and homogeneity
Another way to reduce the occurrence of groupthink is to introduce diversity into the group. Diversity of group members introduces variety of skills, knowledge and perspectives and allows a greater number of different representations to be combined into creative outcomes. (Sawyer, 71) It is possible that too much diversity could create outright conflict if not managed properly, and might not be as productive. (Sawyer, 71) But it seems obvious that a focus on representations too closely related reduces the number of opportunities for different interactions.
C5. Creativity through process
Certain structures of workflow might encourage creativity in small groups or in individuals. This is conceived as a process. Liane Gabora describes the elements of this process as preparation, incubation, illumination and verification. (Gabora, 2) These stages are essentially that information is gathered surrounding the topic, time is left for the unconscious to process this information, a surfacing of ideas, and then an evaluation and communication of the ideas to others. (Gabora, 2) Structuring creative group time to work this way may increase the reliability of generating novel and useful ideas. This might happen by mimicking the processes in individuals.

3. Evidence.
There are plenty of reasons for why creativity occurs at a group level, a society level, and an individual level. I have listed a number of alternatives for group creativity above. The evidence suggests that creativity is not the product of a lone genius and that groups of people have produced incredibly creative level. Creativity happens at many levels, but is dependent on a series of thematically similar structures that can be thought of as similar at any level. Here I will attempt to discuss how each of the alternatives I have listed has a common core in that they influence how creativity happens at an individual neural level. I will also try to present how the structures they suggest behave like creativity at a neural level.
I will be relating this to the neural network view of semantic pointers. Creative concepts can be thought of as being bindings of representations where the best bindings win out by competition. (Thagard & Stewart , 2013) This will help to situate group creativity in the context of consciousness.
A. Creativity is individual
Creativity does happen in individuals through a process of representation, binding and competition. These individuals are situated in a society and interact with other individuals. Success in creativity depends on the ability of individuals to draw from representations, often ones stored by other individuals, recombine them and select best ones. (Thagard & Stewart, 2013). Interaction with other humans seems to help hone the unlimited possibilities that creativity can produce, helping to build in novelty and usefulness. Invention by humans has always happened but has been sporadic and not enduring until recent times when common movements towards invention occurred like the industrial or scientific revolution (MIT, 4). Individuals are creative, but reach creative heights within a larger context.
B. Distributed nature of groups- creativity happens in creative societies
Creativity happens often in the context of a larger society that supports it. Large groups support creativity through culture, social priorities, and public policies. (MIT, 4) A culture that encourages playfulness allows for diverse possibilities for binding ideas, social priorities that encourage competition between novel ideas help identify the most practical ones, and public policies that encourage a diversity and freedom of ideas allow for diverse representations to be held. A society offers a context through which creative individuals can operate.
C. Creativity can happen in small groups
Creativity can happen in small groups in a similar way that it happens in individuals with similar rules to how creative societies operate if structured correctly. Small groups are an intermediary example that might exhibit qualities of both. High performing groups have the same sort of network operations as individuals with the same sort of social processes of societies. Small groups can be an optimal manifestation of socially situating process of creativity, resulting in groups that produce original creations that are relevant to the society as groups like the Beatles or Monty Python did. (Haslam, 13) These are some of the social processes that contribute to group creativity.
C1. Brainstorming- openness
Brainstorming, if done in a focused way, seems to open up the representation space of a group. It can make tacit knowledge explicit in the group setting. Brainstorming is most useful in quickly generating numerous different types of representations and preliminary bindings. It can be an iterative process where a synthesis of the first brainstorm can prime a more convergent second process where group representations are bound. The risk that must be mitigated is a generation of large amount of noise, or ideas that distract the group from the main goal. (Sawyer, 66)
C2. Creativity through writing- distributed cognition
A recording of group processes through writing allows for representations to be remembered and built upon more easily. This, paired with a brainstorming process, provides the bulk of the concepts that can be bound. As the bound ideas of the group become more complex, written expression can act as a jumping off point for further bindings and a written paper trail to refer back to can help identify constituent parts of a creative outcome. By recording group ideas on surfaces like white boards or sticky notes that can by manipulated, seemingly unrelated ideas can be combined together through physical positioning. This recording of creative ideas can also help to set up a comparative framework for assessing competing ideas and choosing the best ones.
C3. Creativity through trust – not criticizing ideas
Group identity is essential to create a seamless and supportive environment. An understanding of the group that allows for specific times for criticism and times without helps to structure divergent and convergent thinking processes. This allows for the production of novel ideas while also filtering for practicality. Openness and closure reflects the binding and competitive stages. We want to see as many valuable bindings as possible; it is the competitive process that will identify the best one.
C4. Creativity through diversity and homogeneity
Diversity in a group is what allows for the diversity in representations. Combining seemingly disparate ideas in order to create valuable new ones is a key tenet of creativity and is made possible with groups with diverse membership. It is a key part of what makes individuals or groups able to look at problems in a different way. (Haslem, 13) Too much diversity can make it harder to find connections for bindings or to act coherently in a competitive process, so frameworks must be instilled. Diversity can be managed by the development of a cohesive structure rallying around certain commonalities. (McGoff, 83) Creative individuals often combine ideas from different disciplines and creative societies are often those more heterogeneous, so it follows that creative groups require diversity.
C5. Creativity through enforced process
A consistent process seems to help motivate groups to deliver consistent creative results. Gabora says that the four stages of creativity- preparation, incubation, illumination and verification- can be split into two different modes. An associative mode that reveals connections, and an analytic mode that identifies cause and effect. (Gabora, 2) These two modes are similar to the framework of creativity as production of novel and useful semantic pointers in that creativity must be split into stages where binding of representations and competition of these bindings occur. If small groups are able to operate with optimized social processes that take into account these stages then they might be able to operate more creatively.
4. Conclusion.
In this paper I attempted to describe and explain certain social processes that might encourage creativity in groups. Here, I will motivate the overarching implications of my argument and attempt to tie my evidence together into some speculation about the interrelated mechanisms of individual, group, and social creativity.
I struggled in this paper to identify what was the most important thing to say about group creativity and especially relating it back to consciousness. It seems that we hardly have a firm understanding of consciousness itself and only inkling to suggest that creativity is somehow tied to it. Therefore, it is difficult to motivate how the interaction of supposedly creative agents in creative groups is related to consciousness. The connection I made is with the most recent research about individual creativity being a process of neural networks to research about invention in society being a product of networks. If invention in individuals and in societies is both about network operations, then it seems that there is something like consciousness motivating it. It is interesting how both an individual and a society might create or invent something consciously or unconsciously, the analogy being of course to focused research and serendipitous coincidence. A society might have focused creative enterprise, a space program for instance, that represents something like conscious creativity and yet peripheral or unconscious creative spin offs occur that are not the focus, like a tremendous amount of fiction that relates to the topic. To me it seems that if we centre a discussion around creativity as operations common to networks then there is merit to both an individualistic account and a social account, and creativity must happen in places in between. Individuals act creatively in the context of a society, and societies must have creative agents operating in them. Small groups are a unit in between that can leverage the creativity of multiple individuals in order to produce emergent results. So the question was, what are some unique social processes that encourage creativity in small groups?
Small groups can act creatively as units similar to how creativity operates in individuals with the right mechanisms in place. The overall mechanisms that are needed are the abilities to balance divergent and convergent thinking. Processes of representation, binding and competition are present in both stages. Divergent thinking primarily presents large possibilities of novel ideas, and convergent thinking primarily takes those possibilities and judges by the usefulness requirement.
Creativity is a feedback loop of engaging wide activation of the brain for binding new concepts, developing a flash of insight, and then reflecting this to get the final idea. I see groups that are well designed using the social processes used above with and an awareness of society level and individual level operations as being tight feedback loops for creativity and innovation. High performing groups combine the best of creative societies and creative individuals to exhibit creative properties greater than the sum of their members. Essentially this is a culture of openness, diversity and purpose and methods that mimic the best representation, binding and competitive processes of individual creators.
Word Count:  3892
Haslam, S. A., & et al. (2013). The Collective Origins of Valued Originality: A Social Identity Approach to Creativity. Personality and Social Psychology Review, XX(X) (1 –18).
Blackmore, S. (2012). Consciousness (Second Edition.). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Gabora, L. (n.d.). Cognitive mechanisms underlying the creative process. Presented at the Fourth International Conference on Creativity and Cognition , Loughborough University, UK. Retrieved fromhttp://cogprints.org/2546/1/CandC.htm
Kelley, T. (2001). The Art of Innovation. New York: Doubleday.
McGoff, C. (2012). The primes: how any group can solve any problem. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley.
Ogle, R. (2007). Smart world: Breakthrough creativity and the new science of ideas. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Business School Press.
Sawyer, K. (2007). Group Genius: the creative power of collaboration. New York: Basic Books.
Shirky, C. (2010). Cognitive surplus: creativity and generosity in a connected age. London: Penguin.
Thagard, P., & Stewart, T. (2013). Two Theories of Consciousness: Semantic Pointer Competition vs. Information Integration. University of Waterloo.
Thagard,, P., & Stewart, T. C. (2011). The AHA! Experience: Creativity Through Emergent Binding in Neural Networks. Cognitive Science, 35(1–33).

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