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Lessons for Life

The benefits of rejection

How social rejection can boost your creativity

Jen Weigel

Lessons for life

August 28, 2012

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Social rejection can be devastating. But according to a new study released by Johns Hopkins University, being left out can also help boost the creativity and imagination for those who already feel separate from the crowd.

"We found that social rejection of independent thinkers can actually be a form of validation," said Sharon Kim, a Johns Hopkins Carey Business School assistant professor and the study's lead author. "I think for these people who already feel different — it sort of confirms something that they already feel about themselves and that isn't necessarily negative."

Kim's study included 223 University students (age 20) in three separate experiments. In one of the experiments, students were told they would be taking part in a group test. Once they arrived, some of the students were told that nobody chose to work with them. After receiving the rejection, they were then given cognitive tasks or work puzzles.

"For the individuals with a strong sense of independence, the results showed that they behaved more creatively," she said. "The rejection actually frees them — disinhibits them — so they are free to be inspired by whatever and not worry what other people think."

For those people who value belonging to a group, social rejection can inhibit cognitive ability and memory, Kim said.

"I think in our society there does still seem to be a great insistence on fitting in and I think that maybe our study is one piece of evidence that shows that you don't have to fit in and sometimes you can get good things out of being a square peg in a round hole," she said.

Kim said the study came to mind after seeing an overwhelming amount of bullying stories in the news. While the findings could be helpful for parents and teens, Kim feels the information could also be useful for today's business leaders.

"There's been a surge of interest in creativity in certain corporations but I think the selection and hiring practices don't necessarily reflect hiring people that might actually be more creative than others," she said. "We still see that sort of 'fitting in' mentality when we hire. But I think we have some room to shift as a culture and a society — to be able to think more independently and not be so afraid to be different. I think we could all benefit from understanding the value of being not just like everybody else."

In a world where many feel pressure to be accepted, Kim said she hopes her findings will encourage people to celebrate their unique qualities rather than try to change them to please others.

"This shows that there is a constructive alternative to what many would think of as a negative circumstance," Kim said. "For the socially rejected, creativity may be the best revenge."

jweigel@tribune.com

Twitter: @jenweigel