Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Seeing Unexpected Things Makes Some People More Creative

Can you jump-start your creativity by thinking about inconsistent ideas?

Most days don’t require a lot of creativity.  You get up and go through your normal routine.  Your school or work day involves a lot of repetition of tasks like those you have done before.  The day may be interesting, but it didn’t require you to really stretch out beyond your comfort zone.

Sometimes, though, you really need a novel solution to a difficult problem.  At those times, it would be great to have a way to jump-start the creative process.

Descriptions of the creative process often focus on two phases of creativity.  In the divergent phase, many different potential ideas need to be generated. In the convergent phase, those ideas need to be evaluated to select the ones that are most promising.  The divergent phase is particularly difficult, because it requires going beyond existing ideas in some way.

Research by Malgorzata Goclowska, Matthijs Baas, Richard Crisp, and Carsten De Dreu described in the August, 2014 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin suggests that thinking about inconsistent concepts jump-starts divergent thinking for some people. 

These researchers focus on an individual difference called Need for Structure.  The idea is that some people really like their world to be predictable and to follow rules.  Other people are less bothered when things do not go according to plan.  They suggest that divergent thinking by people who are low in Need for Structure (so that they are not bothered by surprises) is helped by thinking about surprising juxtapositions of concepts.  People high in Need for Structure are hurt by thinking about these surprising items.

In one study, participants were asked to study a series of pictures for a later memory test.  One group saw pictures of people in situations consistent with their costume.  They might see an astronaut in space or an Eskimo on the snow.  A second group saw pictures of people in situations that were inconsistent with their costume (an astronaut in the snow or an Eskimo in space). 

Then, the participants were asked to generate as many names as they could think of for a new type of pasta.  The instructions gave five examples of pasta names that all ended in an ‘i.’  The researchers were interested in whether participants would generate pasta names that ended in different letters and how often they would switch the last letter, which would suggest that they were trying different methods for generating names. 

The inconsistent pictures had an interesting influence on participants.  Participants who were low in need for structure tended to generate many more pasta names that did not end in ‘i’ and to generate names ending in many different letters compared to those people who were high in need for structure.  Seeing consistent pictures did not have much influence on participants’ performance regardless of their need for structure.

A second study demonstrated a similar finding using the Remote Associates Test, in which participants are shown three words (MAGIC PLUSH FLOOR) and are asked to find another word that could go with each of them (in this case, CARPET).  In this case, participants generated the attributes of either a schema-consistent person (a male mechanic) or a schema-inconsistent person (a female mechanic).  Participants who thought about the schema-inconsistent person generated more correct answers on the Remote Associates Test if they were low in Need for Structure than if they were High in Need for Structure.

These results suggest that if you are trying to jump-start your creativity, you need to know a bit more about yourself.  If you are willing to accept uncertain situations, then exposing yourself to inconsistent juxtapositions of concepts may get you thinking divergently.  If you are less willing to accept uncertainty, though, then this strategy won’t work for you.

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Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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