How Sexism Stifles Creativity

When people in mixed-sex groups are told to be "politically correct," their ideas are more numerous and more original.

If you ever want to say something offensive, just preface it with, “I’m not the politically correct type, so...” It’s a signal to the listener that the unfiltered brain-vomit that’s about to dribble forth is just an exercise in free speech.

In defending his statement that he would never appoint a Muslim to his administration, for example, Herman Cain told Fox News in 2011, “My motivation for saying no ... was based upon the fact that they are trying to push Sharia law off on this country. And I'm simply not going to try and be politically correct in order to help facilitate that.”

The writer Teju Cole parodied this perfectly in the New Yorker recently: “Look, I’m not the politically correct type, so I’m just going to put this out there: Ebola is the neo-Nazism of niggling knee injuries.”

People who aren’t politically correct, according to this philosophy, are the only true thinkers in a world of sheeple. They took the red pill, and they’re here to drop some knowledge.

The other connotation of political correctness is as a euphemism for false outrage. It’s the grown-up version of “concern trolling."

Three years after Larry Summers suggested that differences in intrinsic aptitudes between men and women might explain why fewer women go into STEM careers, Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus wrote that “he probably had a legitimate point and the continuing uproar says more about the triumph of political correctness than about Summers’ supposed sexism.”

Because of its association with knee-jerk, perhaps undue, sensitivity, you might think that political correctness dampens creativity in groups. But a new study, forthcoming in the journal Administrative Science Quarterly, suggests just the opposite: Particularly in coed groups, asking people to be politically correct—not just “sensitive” or “polite”—leads to more creative, novel ideas.

For the experiment, the study authors primed groups of people by having them write about what it means to be either “politically correct,” “sensitive,” or “polite.” The control group did not do a writing exercise. The researchers then broke the participants off into groups of three. Some of the groups were single-sex, and others were mixed-sex. All of the groups had 10 minutes to generate ideas for a new business.

The authors found that mixed-sex groups who were in the “politically correct” condition generated more and better ideas (as determined by independent, blind raters) than the other three groups.

For their next experiment, the researchers skipped the writing exercise and simply told a new set of participants, “You’re about to interact with a mixed-sex group, and people might become offended, so your goal is to be as politically correct as possible,” study author Jack Goncalo, a professor of organizational behavior at Cornell University, told me.

The same thing happened: Being told to be politically correct made the mixed-gender groups more creative.

Interestingly, the “politically correct” prompt caused the single-sex groups to be less creative, not more—perhaps because people already feel comfortable with people of their same gender, so the extra instructions only confused them.

In fact, the politically correct priming made the mixed-gender groups just as creative as the same-sex ones. This study and others have found that generally, both sexes feel uneasy when asked to generate ideas as part of a mixed-sex work group, as this study notes. The men feel anxious because they fear offending the women, and the women worry the men will ignore their ideas.

The authors theorized that the politically correct priming bridged the gender divide by reducing the uncertainty that members of coed groups often experience when they try to collaborate. If you’re a man, do you try to live up to gender stereotypes by being dominant, or do you let women take the floor? As a woman, how do you “Lean In” without seeming too aggressive?

In another experiment, the researchers found that when people in mixed-gender groups were experiencing a great deal of uncertainty over how to interact with each other, telling them to be politically correct lowered their levels of anxiety—and once again, boosted creativity.

“Having that [political correctness instruction] was almost like a framework that helped guide the interaction and understand what was expected of them,” Goncalo told me. “And that predictability made them more comfortable.”

When men aren’t thinking about being politically correct, they can sometimes be too, for lack of a better word, bro-y (or afraid of coming off as such). “And the flip side of men being jerks is that women worry that they’re going to be a target of that behavior,” Goncalo says. In the politically correct groups of this experiment, meanwhile, “women knew they were interacting in a group where that was not going to be acceptable.”

Telling people to be politically correct, in other words, was just a way to stop them from being sexist. And it was only then that truly innovative ideas could flourish.

Interestingly, even though the political correctness directive was helpful to the study subjects, that didn’t mean they came to appreciate the concept. “Even though it was liberating their freedom of expression,” Goncalo says, “they still said that being politically correct was a restrictive thing.”

I guess I’m not very politically correct, but those people are a bunch of bozos for thinking that.