Study: Links Between Conservative Political Viewpoints And Creativity

Researchers have known for years that multicultural experiences can boost one’s creativity (Chang, Hsu, Shih, & Chen, 2014). Consider the evidence.

  • In one study, persons who had lived or studied abroad generated more innovative solutions to problems than persons who had not been abroad.
  • A study in Taiwan found that middle school students from bicultural families were, on average, more creative than students from monocultural families.
  • In a controlled experiment, individuals primed with Chinese and American cultural images generated more creative responses—in a retelling of the Cinderella story—than individuals primed to think of a single culture or not primed at all.

If cultural experiences can affect levels of creativity, then cultural values may also affect creativity. There is some evidence to support this line of reasoning. Over the past 100 years, American society has become culturally looser—less formal, less strict, and more tolerant of deviations from the norm. During the same time period, Americans also have become more creative, as indicated by the number of patents awarded, feature films produced, and unusual baby names chosen (Jackson, Gelfand, De, & Fox, 2019).

A Cross-National Study of Conservatism and Creativity

In a study published last month, an international team of researchers led by Agata Groyecka-Bernard at the University of Wrocław (Poland) examined the relationship between conservatism and creativity in 28 nations (Groyecka-Bernard et al., 2024). Borrowing from earlier studies, they defined conservatism as “traditionalism and conformity” and creativity as “the ability to produce products that are original and useful.”

The researchers recruited 6,865 adult volunteers (3,765 females) in 28 countries on five continents. About half of the participants were university students or staff.

The study participants completed a version of Henningham’s conservatism scale. Specifically, they indicated their support or lack of support (yes or no) for 10 societal issues including stiffer jail terms, legalized abortion, gay rights, premarital virginity, multiculturalism, and religious authority.

The participants also completed a measure of creative thinking called the Drawing Production Test, in which subjects are asked to complete an unfinished drawing that consists of a few shapes. Each completed picture was scored by two raters working independently. A participant’s overall creativity score was based on 13 criteria, including adding new elements, breaking a boundary, humor, using signs or symbols, and originality of the completed picture.[1]

Conservatism Was Associated With Less Creativity

Groyecka-Bernard and her team discovered that, across all 28 countries, more conservative individuals tended to be less creative in their drawings. The relationship was not strong, but it persisted even after the researchers controlled statistically for the effects of education, sex, and age.

When the researchers examined the relationship between conservatism and creativity within each country, they made a curious discovery. In some countries—Croatia and Sweden, for example—conservatism and creativity were negatively correlated; that is, scores on the two measures tended to move in opposite directions. In other countries—China and Portugal, for example—there was almost no relationship between the two variables. In a few countries—Colombia and Germany, for example—conservatism and creativity were positively correlated.[2]

The study’s major finding bears repeating: Across 28 nations on five continents, individuals who held traditional views about social and religious issues were, as a group, judged to be slightly less creative than individuals who held nontraditional views.

Keep in mind that, in this study, creativity was measured with a drawing completion task. A different measure of creativity—thinking of all the different uses for a brick, for example—might have produced different results. Despite the study’s limitations—and all studies have limitations—Groyecka-Bernard’s cross-national findings fit squarely with the results of other studies using participants from a single country: Conservatives, as a group, tend to be less creative.

Why? Well, conservatives desire structure, tradition, conformity, and predictability, whereas liberals are open to new experiences and able to tolerate ambiguity. These two traits—being open and being comfortable with uncertainty—are said to promote divergent thinking and lateral thinking, both of which are strongly associated with generating novel solutions to problems.

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Advice for Parents and Teachers

What does all this mean for parents and teachers who want to foster creative thinking in their children and students? First, explicitly tell children that the characteristics of creativity are originality and usefulness—and then encourage them to be creative when they approach problems. Second, when interacting with children, especially young children, be open-minded, flexible, and accepting of ambiguity. By modeling this mindset, you give children permission to “color outside the lines.”

[1] The Drawing Production Test is considered to be “culturally fair” because one’s performance is not based on linguistic competence and does not require specific cultural knowledge.

[2] The lack of uniformity across countries is difficult to explain. According to the authors, it may be an artifact of disparate sample sizes. Some countries contributed many more participants than others.

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