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In music this happens often – a band lands a hit but then fails to do anything special again. A well-known occurrence with hits like Tequila in 1958 being the ultimate one-hit wonder for The Champs – there are hundreds of others. But it doesn’t just happen in music, for example, Harper Lee’s hit To Kill A Mocking Bird was her only novel and it took her 55 years to release a sequel.

Why does this happen? Well, there could by many reasons, a lucky punch leading to something really hitting the mark, freak marketing or exposure, the stars aligning to make everything perfect, etc. etc. however, it could also be that creativity itself is impacted by success.

And this is precisely what Markus Baer and Dirk Deichmann of Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis, wanted to find out. To do this they went to research cookbooks. which may sound like a strange place to look for creativity, but they are commonly published and bought and tend to be a creative labour of love with few rewards reaped. They found that 50% of those who publish cookbooks failed to publish a second.

They then set up a series of experiments with undergraduates. They were asked to design concepts for a cookbook. They were then randomly given one of two pieces of feedback: one half were told their idea was “highly original and novel,” and the other half were told their idea was “very solid and traditional.” A subgroup of participants was also told that their ideas were “among the ideas most likely to make a big splash in the food community”.

Participants were then given the option to develop the first idea or come up with a new idea. What they found is that those who had been given the best feedback were much less likely to want to develop further new ideas. A second experiment tried to pinpoint why this was the case and they found that there was identity threat i.e. their sense of being a creative individual was put at risk if asked to develop a new idea (they might not or could not live up to expectations).

This shows that one aspect of winning prizes (in whatever form) in creativity is that this creates a sense of identify but there is a risk that comes with this and therefore decreased chances of producing more novel ideas.

This goes some way to explaining one-hit wonders, there are obviously many other factors at play. But in business it raises the stakes of how creative ideas are rewarded. Because as soon as your reward an idea you will likely decrease creative output from this individual – so reward the process, and reward multiple ideas over single ideas.

Note also that creative people like different rewards as I outlined here.

Thanks god I’m not rewarded that often for my ideas!

Andy Habermacher

Andy Habermacher

Andy is author of leading brains Review, Neuroleadership, and multiple other books. He has been intensively involved in writing and research into neuroleadership and is considered one of Europe’s leading experts. He is also a well-known public speaker, speaking on the brain and human behaviour.

Andy is also a masters athlete (middle distance running) and competes regularly at international competitions (and holds a few national records in his age category).

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Dirk Deichmann, Markus Baer.
A recipe for success? Sustaining creativity among first-time creative producers.
Journal of Applied Psychology, 2022
DOI: 10.1037/apl0001019

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