President's Column

When Ellen Berscheid had the audacity to study love in her research, she was rewarded by Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wisc.) with one of his far-from-coveted Golden Fleece Awards, which were given for supposedly fleecing the taxpayers of their money. As a result of her dubious award, Berscheid received many threatening letters and phone calls.

The field of psychology has not shared Proxmire's evaluation of Berscheid's work. Berscheid later received the APA Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award. I have also presented Berscheid with an APA Presidential Citation in honor of her courage in sticking to her convictions and her work in the face of daunting odds.

Unfortunately, the kind of treatment Berscheid received from the senator is not so different from what some psychologists receive from their peers. When John Garcia first submitted his work on one-trial learning and on the nonarbitrary nature of the pairing of reinforcements with stimuli, it was roundly rejected and Garcia was figuratively "laughed out of town" by his peers. Garcia, too, got the last laugh, becoming a member of the National Academy of Sciences and, like Berscheid, receiving APA's Distinguished Scientific Contribu-tion Award.

Many of us, when we enter our careers in psychology, expect psychologists to be different from other folks--to appreciate the creativity that, often, our peers and even teachers in our early schooling rejected and even mocked. But we often find that our psychological colleagues are no better than our peers and teachers of yesteryear: When we propose an innovative new idea, our colleagues often reject the idea, and perhaps us as well.

Some years ago, my colleague Todd Lubart and I proposed an investment theory of creativity (Sternberg & Lubart, 1995, 1996), according to which creative people are like good investors: They buy low and sell high in the world of ideas. In other words, they propose ideas that others initially reject (buy low). Then they metaphorically raise the value of their investment. When they finally have convinced others of the value of their ideas, they move on to their next, usually unpopular idea (sell high). Creative people, then, are ones who are willing to defy the crowd (see page 52). And indeed, in all domains of intellectual and other pursuits, creative people find that, rather than being rewarded for their creative ideas, they usually are punished.

To honor the many psychologists who have been willing to forge their own paths, I have edited a book titled "Psychologists Defying the Crowd: Stories of Those Who Battled the Establishment and Won" (APA, 2003). The book tells the first-person stories of psychologists who have gone their own way, paid for it in the short run, but who have succeeded admirably in the long run.

Defying the crowd does not just apply in the science of psychology, of course. Psychology educators may choose their own innovative ways of teaching and receive criticism rather than praise for what they have done. Practitioners may use effective creative techniques in their psychotherapy and find others frowning at what they do.

Many psychologists view creativity as some kind of innate ability. I, on the contrary, view it largely as a decision (Sternberg, 2000). People are creative largely by dint of their decision to go their own way. They make decisions that others lack the will or even the courage to make, daring, for example:

  • To define problems in ways different from those in which their colleagues define them.

  • To analyze their own ideas so as to discard their weaker ones.

  • To persuade people to accept ideas that they may initially reject.

  • To recognize that their knowledge can impede as well as facilitate their efforts if that knowledge serves to limit their vision or has even given them "tunnel vision."

  • To overcome the numerous and often difficult obstacles placed in their paths.

  • To tolerate ambiguity.

  • To be willing to grow, even after many years of experience.

  • To believe in themselves, even at times when no one else seems to.

  • To realize that their ideas are not the final word, and that eventually better ideas will and should build upon and possibly replace their ideas.

  • And, therefore, not to take themselves so seriously that they cannot imagine anyone, including themselves, thinking differently from the way they do.

Note that these items are not abilities, per se, but decisions anyone can make. People generally decide against creativity because the creative way often is too painful, at least in the short run. It doesn't have to be this way. Let's change it.

Further Reading

  • Sternberg, R.J. (2000). Creativity is a decision. In A.L. Costa (Ed.), Teaching for intelligence II (pp. 85-106). Arlington Heights, IL: Skylight Training and Publishing Inc.

  • Sternberg, R.J. (Ed.). (2003). Psychologists defying the crowd: Stories of those who battled the establishment and won. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

  • Sternberg, R.J., & Lubart, T.I. (1995). Defying the crowd: Cultivating creativity in a culture of conformity. New York: Free Press.

  • Sternberg, R.J., & Lubart, T.I. (1996). Investing in creativity. American Psychologist, 51(7), 677-688.