Behind every great artist is a great muse. This muse stimulates the artist's creative juices when he or she is at work, be it on films, music, or paintings. A new study, published in The Journal of Business Research, however, adds to the list of what triggers inspiration. It turns out, a nation’s culture can impact creativity.

To investigate this theory, Gad Saad, co-author of the study and professor at Concordia's John Molson School of Business, and his colleagues decided to "conduct brainstorming tasks using culturally neutral stimuli in Taiwan and in Canada." Brainstorming facilitates the process of creativity. Creativity and innovation are unique to a country's culture, so it is the combination of culture and creativity that helps execute the ideas and values of a society. Taiwan is considered a collectivist society, while Canada is more individualistic. 

By nature, collectivist cultures emphasize the needs and goals of the group as a whole over the needs and wishes of each individual. The relationships among members of this society and the interconnectedness between them play a role in an individual’s identity. In comparison, individualistic cultures emphasize the needs of the individual over the needs of the group as a whole. In this culture, people are seen as independent and autonomous rather than part of the collective.

Saad and his colleagues theorized that where a country falls on the individualism versus collectivism continuum would affect the creative performance in both solitary and group brainstorming scenarios. Data was collected from approximately 300 students from two universities, one in Taipei and the other in Montreal. The participants were evaluated based on five measures usually seen in group brainstorms, including:

  1. The number of generated ideas

  2. The quality of the ideas, as evaluated by independent judges

  3. The number of uttered negative statements within the brainstorming groups, such as "This is a dumb idea that will fail."

  4. The valence of the negative statements — "This is the all-time dumbest idea" has a stronger negative connotation than "This idea is rather banal."

  5. The confidence level exhibited by group members when asked to evaluate their performance in comparison to other teams

The findings revealed those from individualistic societies produce a greater number of ideas compared to their collectivist counterparts. "The study largely supported our hypotheses," Saad said in the news release. "We found that the individualists came up with many more ideas. They also uttered more negative statements — and those statements were more strongly negative. The Canadian group also displayed greater overconfidence than their Taiwanese counterparts."

However, when it comes to the quality of ideas produced, collectivists tend to score slightly higher. Saad and his colleagues believe this is in line with an important cultural trait of these societies. Collectivist societies are known to be more reflective compared to action-oriented, which means they have the reflex to think harder before committing to a course of action.

These results could have implication as to how international teams and global firms interact with one another when it comes to productivity. Brainstorming does help with the production of novel ideas such as new product innovations, but it may not be the most effective strategy in different cultures. Saad stressed, “Even though individuals from collectivistic societies might be coming up with fewer creative ideas, the quality of those ideas tends to be just as good as or marginally better than those of their individualistic counterparts. Employers need to recognize that."

Therefore, it becomes imperative for industries to meet and also create new kinds of demands that are rooted in both individual and collective goals rather than just the functionality of a product. A similar study carried out by KEA, a Brussels-based research and advisory company, for the European Commission found culture-based creativity can have the power to eliminate norms and conventions when it comes to economic competition strategies in the workplace. Studies like these are beneficial to understand the cultural differences that arise when it comes to business negotiations, among many others.

After all, creativity is in the eye of the beholder.

Sources: Cleveland M, Ho L, and Saad G. Individualism–collectivism and the quantity versus quality dimensions of individual and group creative performance. Journal of Business Research. 2015.

KEA. The Impact of Culture on Creativity. European Commission. 2009.