Creativity may be a nerd’s best revenge

JOHNS HOPKINS / CORNELL (US) — Social rejection can enhance creativity—if the person has a strong sense of personal independence.

“For people who already feel separate from the crowd, social rejection can be a form of validation,” says the study’s lead co-author Sharon Kim, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins University’s Carey Business School

“Rejection,” she says, “confirms for independent people what they already feel about themselves, that they’re not like others. For such people, that distinction is a positive one leading them to greater creativity.”


Numerous psychological studies have found that social rejection inhibits cognitive ability in people who value belonging to a group. Kim and her co-authors, Lynne Vincent and Jack Goncalo of Cornell University, decided to consider instead the impact of rejection on people who take pride in being different from the norm.

Such individuals, in a term from the study, are described as possessing an “independent self-concept.” They are, the paper says, “motivated to remain distinctly separate from others.”

“We’re seeing in society a growing concern about the negative consequences of social rejection, thanks largely to media reports about bullying that occurs at school, in the workplace, and online,” Kim says.

“Obviously, bullying is reprehensible and produces nothing good,” she says. “What we tried to show in our paper is that exclusion from a group can sometimes lead to a positive outcome when independently minded people are the ones being excluded.”

The researchers conducted a series of three experiments with university students, measuring their creativity in completing standardized tasks after being told they had not been selected as part of a group.

The team’s conclusion that the more independent, “nerdy” subjects were the most creative after rejection has practical implications for employers, Kim says. They want imaginative employees who are creative in their approach to business problems, she says.

A company might, therefore, want to take a second look at a job candidate whose unconventional personality might make him an easy target for rejection, but whose inventiveness would be a valuable asset to the organization.

In the long term, Kim adds, the creative person with an independent self-concept might even be said to thrive on rejection. While repeated rebuffs would discourage someone who longs for inclusion, such slights could continually recharge the creativity of an independent person. The latter type, says Kim, “could see a successful career trajectory, in contrast with the person who is inhibited by social rejection.”

The team’s paper was recently accepted for publication by the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. It also received a best paper award at the Academy of Management conference held in Boston in August.

Source: Johns Hopkins University