A&S faculty play key roles in 'creativity' project

By: Lori Sonken,  Cornell Chronicle
April 7, 2016

The Institute for the Social Sciences’ Creativity, Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) theme project tackled the challenges inherent in interdisciplinary research collaborations, particularly the issue of how sociologists, psychologists, economists, lawyers, musicians and entrepreneurs sometimes struggle to understand one another.

“We speak different languages. We use the same words to mean different things. We live in different silos. Core knowledge that we usually don’t have to discuss or debate, we had to debate,” said Diane Burton, the project’s leader and associate professor in human resource studies and sociology. Burton spoke March 11 at a daylong event in the ILR Conference Center highlighting the project’s accomplishments.

From 2013-16, the CIE project, through seed research support, a doctoral seminar, workshops and public events, explored how novel ideas capture others’ attention and financial backing, giving birth to new organizations and industries.

Cornell faculty members from five colleges – the College of Arts and Sciences, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the ILR School, the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management and Cornell Law School – worked on the CIE project.

“This project is an excellent example of how the Institute for the Social Sciences brings together faculty from different disciplines to engage in boundary-spanning collaborations,” said Daniel T. Lichter, the Robert S. Harrison Director of the Institute for the Social Sciences (ISS).

Two CIE project members, Jack Goncalo, organizational behavior, and Melissa Ferguson, psychology, along with graduate students Josh Katz and Thomas Mann, examined the psychology of creativity. Their laboratory work fills a gap in the scientific literature about how people evaluate creative ideas.

“We found that narcissists are not actually more creative than others but they are so confident in what they are talking about that their confidence lends their ideas more credibility,” Goncalo said. “Their ideas are not better, but the way they present themselves to others triggers perceptions of creativity that can cause people not only to want to judge the ideas as creative, but also to fund and implement them.”

Goncalo and his research team evaluated human behavior when trying to sell a creative idea, such as during a pitch session to Hollywood movie producers. Those who fit the creative prototype – witty, unconventional, quirky and charismatic – are viewed as more creative, even if their ideas are not good, he said.

Ferguson explained how implicit judgments – activated from memory, unintentionally, rapidly and uncontrollably – uniquely predict decision-making and behavior. She is receiving research support from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.

One tangible outcome from the CIE project is the new Master of Laws (LL.M.) degree program to be launched this fall at Cornell Tech.

“The Tech LL.M. is the pedagogical counterpart to the ISS project,” said Charles Whitehead, the Myron C. Taylor Alumni Professor of Business Law and a CIE project member. Whitehead directs the new, cross-disciplinary Law, Technology and Entrepreneurship Program for lawyers and recent law school graduates.

“The goal is to train a new generation of lawyers to be interdisciplinary – to focus on the law, of course, but also to understand the aspects of innovation and entrepreneurship that affect and are affected by the law,” he said. “As part of this program, Tech LL.M. students will be embedded into the venture-building process in the same way technologists and business people at Cornell Tech are today.”

Whitehead along with David Strang, sociology, and Burton co-directed a research project with graduate sociology students, Abdullah Shahid and Fedor Dokshin, examining the prospectuses used in mortgage-backed securities offerings. The project focused on whether risk factors identified in prospectuses properly reflect changes in risks.

“Often they do not,” said Shahid. “We found firms use some templates over and over again.”

CIE project member Aija Leiponen, Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, discussed her research on data markets, funded by ISS and with support from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

“Data cannot be owned legally. If you share or sell data, there is very limited recourse to control what the person who bought the data can do with it. Because there is no formal intellectual property right on observations of data, this has led to controversies,” she said.

Another CIE project member, Michael Roach, also in the Dyson School, examines university entrepreneurship. He finds that while encouraging entrepreneurship at research universities is associated with greater entrepreneurial activity, it does not dampen research or academic careers. The results also suggest that encouraging entrepreneurship may stimulate a meaningful share of Ph.D.s to join startups as entrepreneurial employees, while allowing other faculty to focus on academic research.

Richard Swedberg, sociology; Trevor Pinch, science and technology studies; Wes Sine, Johnson; and Olga Khessina, organizational behavior, were also on the CIE project.

Summing up the project’s approach to entrepreneurship, Burton said: “Not only do we care about our firms being creative but we care about whether they are good firms, creating good products. Not only do we want firms to create jobs but we ask are they creating good jobs? Much of the political rhetorical around entrepreneurship is about it being an engine of job creation. But if those jobs are Uber taxi drivers, is that the best we can do?”

This article also appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.

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