Don’t fit in? Don’t worry about it. Recent studies by Cornell researchers found being rejected can actually increase a person's creativity — perhaps explaining why so many famous musicians (looking at you, Lady Gaga) have schoolyard horror stories.
Researchers conducted a series of three studies in which students at a university were made to believe they’d been either “accepted” or “rejected” by a group. Participants were then told in person that they'd complete additional creative tasks as individuals (if they’d been “rejected”) or would join their group after completing some tasks (if they’d been “accepted”).
In Study 1, participants were given seven minutes to complete word problems designed to assess creativity. In Studies 2 and 3, the researchers repeated the same procedures but accounted for variables like positive feelings and verbal reasoning. They found that these variables weren’t responsible for individual differences in creativity (meaning rejection likely was the cause). In the third study, participants were asked to draw fantastical creatures. These drawings were used as a barometer of creativity if they looked unlike pre-existing animals on Earth.
Ultimately, social rejection didn't always return negative results, it all depended if the person identified more as independent or interdependent. Researchers speculate that because more independent people already feel “different,” they’re more willing to explore unusual ideas and abandon traditional ways of thinking post-rejection.
In contrast, interdependent people are more motivated to fit in and maintain harmony within a group, making them more likely to respond to rejection with efforts to repair and strengthen friendships. For these folks, rejection can have some pretty pronounced negative consequences. But for individuals whose need to be independent is stronger than the need to belong, being rejected might end up boosting creativity.
Can We Trust It?
Each of the three studies was fairly small — less than a hundred participants each — and restricted to a college population. Still, the results were confirmed across all three studies, suggesting greater validity than if the experiment hadn’t been repeated. More research is still needed though before we pop the champagne.
If rejection sends you scrambling to squirm your way back into the inner circle, perhaps feeding an independent streak is in order. Affirming one’s own uniqueness might light a creative fire and inspire innovative solutions to problems. If nothing else, it’ll help the experience of rejection go down a little easier.
How do you react to social rejection? Got something to share? Tell us in comments below, or get in touch with Laura on Twitter at @LauraNewc.