The Larsen Effect
Some books on the topic define creativity as an idea or process that is original, novel, surprising, adaptive, functional, or workable. I don’t buy it. According to this definition, Emmet’s double-decker couch should be considered remarkably creative—it is original, novel, and surprising—especially to the audience, and proves to be adaptive, functional, and workable to the characters in the story. Yet, the responses to the idea reveal a clear lack of consensus. For Emmet and me, the double-decker couch is creative, but for Emmet’s friends early in the movie and my roommates, the double-decker couch is a bad idea that fails to fit the definition. Clearly, a definition that relies on listing adjectives misses a whole dimension of creativity. It’s not just a matter of the creativeness of the double-decker couch, but also a matter of who comes into contact with an idea.
Taking this into account, other books define creativity within a social context. “Creativity cannot exist outside of social interaction,” writes one author. “Not only are creators using resources from their social context but also the creative act needs the evaluative look of other people for something to be called ‘creative’.” It make sense to me; creativity requires feedback. It’s all about the Larsen Effect.
Named for Danish scientist Søren Larsen, the Larsen Effect explains acoustic feedback—why auditorium speaker systems sometimes generate ear-splitting shrieks. Speaker shrieks happen when a microphone and a loudspeaker get into a loop, the microphone picking up the loudspeaker’s sound and the loudspeaker amplifying what the microphone hears. The loudspeaker and the microphone pass sound back and forth and soon, what began as a weak, high-pitched ring, explodes into an ear-splitting screech.
It can be helpful to think about social feedback like acoustic feedback. The people around us act like a loudspeaker, amplifying and broadcasting prominent ideas and events. Each of us is like a microphone, listening and passing on what we hear to other people, to the societal loudspeaker. The loop continues and ideas flow back and forth, and the most prominent ideas get amplified. The double-decker couch gains popularity or fades from the limelight.
While the acoustic feedback analogy works well to describe social feedback, there is one major point where the analogy breaks down. You and I are not microphones. We get to choose which information we pass along to the loudspeaker. That doesn’t mean, however, that we control the loudspeakers.
Not everyone in society is well-equipped to give feedback, and not everyone’s opinion is equally weighted or broadcasted. One writer explained it this way:
Societies typically have gatekeepers in every field who tell us what is good and what is not, who gets to be selected for fame, and who does not, who should be celebrated with a cocktail party and a big check. It is not the public that selects creativity, it is those knowledgeable in the field who herald the new, the unexpected, the wonderful, the eclectic.
Society trusts these “creativity gatekeepers” to give reliable feedback based on success in their chosen field and the respect of their contemporaries. And gatekeepers have the loudest voices in the feedback system. When John Williams, the film composer behind Star Wars, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and Jaws, shares his opinion on music, people listen. Of course, gatekeepers are not infallible; they are prone to strengthen their points of view in the feedback system for increased profits or reputation. I don’t mean that gatekeepers should be mistrusted or dismissed, but it is important to have awareness of the societal feedback system’s nature. I would rather take advice from someone who has been up the mountain, but I don’t have to buy their brand of shoes to take the hike.
 Simonton, “Creativity—Cognitive, Personal, Developmental, and Social Aspects.”
 Reuter, Creativity: A Sociological Approach, vi.
 Samuel, “How to Avoid Feedback”.
 Reuter, Creativity: A Sociological Approach, 2.
 Reuter, Creativity: A Sociological Approach, vii.