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When it comes to creativity, it’s easy to imagine that more is better. Creativity lies at the heart of science. It solves problems and drives innovation. Then there’s the small matter of art and literature. Humanity’s self expression and aesthetic explorations are born of our creative drive.

And yet creativity has its downsides too, say Stefan Leijnen and Liane Gabora at the University of British Columbia in Canada. Creative solutions can only spread if they are adopted by other individuals. These imitators play an important role in society. They act as a kind of memory, storing the results of successful creative strategies for future generations. But the time that individuals spend creating means less time imitating. Clearly we cannot all be creators all the time but neither can we all be imitators.

That raises an interesting question, say Leijnen and Gabora. How much creativity does a society need to optimize the evolution of ideas?

To find out, they built a computational model that simulates the way ideas are created, how they spread and how they evolve in a society. The model simulates the behaviour of agents that invent new ideas by modifying existing ones, that imitate these ideas and also think, in the sense that they are able to evaluate new ideas before trying them out. The agents are assessed against a fitness criteria and reproduce accordingly. A new generation then repeats the process and so on.

Leijnen and Gabora measure the success of creativity versus imitating by looking at the fitness of the society as a whole and how this changes over time.

Of course, real individuals are both creators and imitators. In their simulations, Leijnen and Gabora find that society benefits most when individuals spend less than half their time creating and the rest imitating. When that happens, there is scope for everyone to be creative without any drop in society’s fitness.

But if some individuals spend all their time creating and none imitating, this situation changes. In that case, a maximum of 30 per cent of a population can be creative, without society suffering. Which means that 70 per cent of individuals are condemned to a life of mindless copying.

What does that mean for us? It’s hard to say. It would be easy to question how well the model and, in particular, its fitness criteria applies to the real world. But that would be to miss the point of an interesting attempt to model the evolution of ideas.

The implication is that we should spend less than 50 percent of our time being creative, if we want to maximise the benefit of our ideas to society.

What we lack here is a good understanding of what it means for real humans to be creative and how much time it is possible to spend on this task. Given the unavoidable demands of being human: the need for sleep, food, sex, relaxation which all involve a certain amount of creativity and copying etc, it’s quite possible that it’s physically impossible to spend anywhere near the 50 percent threshold on being creative. That would imply that we can safely pursue creativity as a goal in our society for the foreseeable future.

There’s another interesting idea. It may be possible that evolution has already solved this problem: that humans have evolved in a way that optimises the spread of ideas through society. So the balance between creativity and imitation in ou lives is built inot our genese and culture. That’s one for the anthropologists.

Ref: arxiv.org/abs/0911.2390: How creative should creators be to optimize the evolution of ideas? A computational model

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