The post’s title refers to one of my grandmother’s favorite sayings.  It was her funny way of saying that it is actually a good thing that people are different.

I thought about that quote when I came across an old study on creativity (via Ana Andjelic):

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.

The study asked the question, “how much creativity does a society need to optimize the evolution of ideas?”  (Here is a PDF copy of the paper.)

To answer the question, Leijnen and Gabora created an agent-based model to study the dynamics of idea creation, mutation, and propagation in an artificial landscape.  They ran various experiments–50 iterations each–varying both the percentage of agents that were creators and the probability that a creator would innovate in a given run of the simulation.  Here is what they found:

The ideal proportion with respect to fitness of ideas occurs when thirty to forty percent of the individuals is creative. When creators are inventing 50% of iterations or less, mean fitness of actions in the society is a positive function of the ratio of creators to imitators; otherwise mean fitness of actions starts to drop when the ratio of creators to imitators exceeds approximately 30%. For all levels of creativity, the diversity of ideas in a population is positively correlated with the ratio of creative agents.

So while we praise creativity and innovation, the experiment illustrates the central importance of imitation and the propagation of ideas.  Just as a society filled with followers won’t lead to a cascade of advancements, neither will a society of pure creatives.  If everyone is running around coming up with novel ideas and no one is adopting or imitating those ideas you end up with a static world as well.

I think in reality there isn’t a firm split between creators and imitators.  Great innovation is typically the result of adopting multiple existing technologies, methods, and ideas and combining them in interesting and novel ways.  To me, this means at some point people (or agents) are playing both roles–imitating and creating at different intervals.

Still, the model is obviously an abstraction and quite instructive.  If we are all doing the same thing it makes the goal of progress and innovation hard to realize.