Creativity and the Virtues of Difference

Integrating business and the liberal arts

Jill E. Perry-Smith

“I think there should be more students from different schools and different backgrounds in this class to provide different perspectives. Would be interesting to have interdisciplinary participation.”

Sometimes students have incredible insights about their learning experiences in the classroom. 

Plenty of research suggests that people have a natural tendency to want to be around people like themselves. This partly is driven by proximity. We are simply more likely to know and form close relationships with people who share the same space. This natural tendency is also driven by the fact that it generally is easier to be around people who are similar. For example, we do not have to work as hard to understand someone who is immersed in the same paradigms, has similar values about what is important and what is not, and is concerned about the same problems. Although our natural tendencies regenerate, they may not be ideal. 

This is why the anonymous comment above, made by an MBA student in a class I taught, struck me as very insightful. In contrast to what may seem natural, this student realized the virtues of something different.

The class was Leading Groups and Teams, a topic that one can imagine would be of interest to a wide variety of students across the university. After all, almost everyone has to work with others and will have to do so as part of any organization or firm. Yet not surprisingly, I expected to teach only business school students. This was primarily the case, but I was delighted to have a handful of students from other parts of the university, such as public health and economics.

From my point of view, these students tremendously enriched the discussion. Their comments and approach to the class nicely complemented the perspectives of the majority of students in the class. It was clear to me that the way students participated and framed their ideas differed by major, presumably because different subtle norms develop around class discussion across majors. Importantly, though, these differences were subtle enough to be enriching. There was enough commonality around the topic that these differences were not problematic, disruptive, or uncomfortable. 

I observed more concrete effects as well. For the final group project, I randomly assigned students to groups, which avoided like-majored students working exclusively with one another. One group, for example, studied a team within a non-profit public policy organization, the entry to which came from a graduate student in public health. From my vantage point, all students benefited from exposure to students from different schools across the university. Apparently, the student making the comment above agreed.

All of this speaks to the importance of integrating business and liberal arts education to some degree. Specialization and choice are important, and students should be able to pursue a professional major, such as business or law, or a liberal arts major, such as English or science. But some level of integration across these domains could be beneficial. 

This perspective is consistent with my research on creativity and social networks. Creativity includes inventive solutions to problems, as well as new ideas about processes or products. Creativity also involves broad versus narrow thinking and interesting combinations of seemingly disparate elements. Of course, some people are more innately creative than others, and some are drawn to creative fields. Even people who do not naturally think of themselves as creative, however, or who do not identify themselves as being artistic, can contribute creative ideas, solutions, and thought processes. When it comes to learning, creativity provides an intangible element that can help students solve complex conceptual problems and integrate disparate knowledge and ideas. 

In my research, I investigate how informal interactions, including brief conversations and weaker relationships, can facilitate creativity. One way that seemingly casual relations can improve creativity is by providing exposure to different perspectives, frames, and information. People with whom we interact frequently and with whom we are close friends tend to be similar to us. The weaker relationships, in contrast, are more likely to offer something different relative to what is familiar. Plus, we tend to be cognitively open to fundamental differences of opinion with our weaker contacts but come to expect similar perspectives from our stronger contacts. As a result, these seemingly less important social interactions—unimportant to a sense of belonging and closeness provided by stronger ties—provide exactly the cognitive stimulation needed to be creative. Interestingly, the helpful exposure that these ties potentially provide does not have to be in depth, detailed, or at face value considered rich. Instead, exposure to different norms, different frames, and different contexts is enough to spark interesting and creative thoughts. 

One conclusion from this logic is that breadth of exposure may be important in a university setting. Of course, depth of knowledge is the primary goal of majoring in a particular area, and even greater depth is necessary in graduate school. Taking one or two courses in other parts of the university, however, could provide just enough stimulation to help students become more interesting and creative thinkers. This demands that within liberal arts education, and the university setting in particular, we should encourage cross registration for classes at the fringes—meaning classes that are not necessarily accessible in the form of dual majors or oversubscribed by students with other majors, but in the form of taking a class or two outside of a student’s home major. 

One theme of my work has been that social isolation is not beneficial for creativity, yet too much immersion within one social space can be constraining. Similarly, pure isolation within one part of the university may unintentionally create social relationships that stifle academic creativity. As the anonymous student recognized, although it may be more fun and comfortable to be in class with close friends with whom one has taken many other classes, there is an intangible benefit to being exposed to students from outside one’s school.