Andy’s Quick Hits (268): Why Having a Hit Reduces Creativity

Andy Hab
3 min readAug 8, 2022

In music this happens often — a band lands a hit but then fails to do anything special again. A well-known occurrence with hits like Tequila in 1958 being the ultimate one-hit wonder for The Champs — there are hundreds of others. But it doesn’t just happen in music, for example, Harper Lee’s hit To Kill A Mocking Bird was her only novel and it took her 55 years to release a sequel.

Why does this happen? Well, there could by many reasons, a lucky punch leading to something really hitting the mark, freak marketing or exposure, the stars aligning to make everything perfect, etc. etc. however, it could also be that creativity itself is impacted by success.

And this is precisely what Markus Baer and Dirk Deichmann of Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis, wanted to find out. To do this they went to research cookbooks. This may sound like a strange place to look for creativity, but they are commonly published, it is competitive, they are commonly bought and, importantly, tend to be a creative labour of love. They found that 50% of those who managed to get a cookbook published failed to publish a second.

They then set up a series of experiments with undergraduates. They were asked to design concepts for a cookbook. They were then randomly given one of two pieces of feedback: one half were told their idea was “highly original and novel,” and the other half were told their idea was “very solid and traditional.” A subgroup of participants was also told that their ideas were “among the ideas most likely to make a big splash in the food community”.

Participants were then given the option to develop the first idea or come up with a new idea. What they found is that those who had been given the best feedback were much less likely to want to develop further new ideas.

A second experiment tried to pinpoint why this was the case and they found that there was identity threat i.e. their sense of being a creative individual was put at risk if asked to develop a new idea (they might not or could not live up to expectations).

This shows that one aspect of winning prizes (in whatever form) in creativity is that this creates a sense of identify but there is a risk that comes with this and therefore…

Andy Hab

Sharing fascinating, fun, and important knowledge on the brain and human behaviour - most days. And masters track athlete - still going strong!