By Art Markman, Peter Gray, Sian Beilock, Christopher J Sprigman, Kal Raustiala, Peter Bregman, published on May 7, 2013 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
My least favorite phrase is think outside the box. Yes, it's trite, but worse, it's meaningless. What in the world does it mean to think outside the box? Presumably, that you should come up with ideas that fall outside the norm. But that's not helpful advice. You can't know that you have come up with a new idea until after you've generated that idea in the first place.
When you ask most people to do something creative, they quickly get stuck in a rut. Studies by The University of Alabama's Thomas Ward and his colleagues asked college students to draw animals from alien planets. Nearly all the animals people drew resembled real ones from Earth. They had similar sensory organs, legs, and arms and were symmetrical. Even when asked to be creative, people based their work on known examples.
And that observation forms the basis of a crucial technique for generating new ideas.
Your memory automatically calls up information that is related to what you are thinking about. (If I ask you to think about animals, you will start to think about ones you know. If I ask you to think about birthday parties, you will think about birthday parties.) When you are faced with a creative problem to solve, you try to describe it. It may be an issue at work that you have to address in a novel manner. It might be a new work of art or music. It might be an idea for a product. Whatever description you give to that problem serves as a cue to your memory. It brings up concepts related to that description, and that information ultimately makes its way into your creative work. The people who were asked to draw animals from an alien planet started by thinking about animals, which influenced the shape of their invented creatures.
If you want to change the way you approach a creative problem, then you need to change what you are thinking about. You need to describe the situation in a new way. That will change what you pull from your memory and the knowledge you use to solve the problem.
A key strategy for changing what you think about is to find the essence of the creative problem you're trying to solve. Start by looking at how you described it. Then, see if there is another way to frame that issue and explore where that takes you. Whenever you find that you're out of fresh ideas, look for another description of the situation.
Think about the college students in the study mentioned above. They probably did not think carefully about the way the creative situation was framed, and so they called animals to mind. Those animals generally have typical sense organs and limbs. So, while the sense organs and limbs they drew may have looked strange, they were still there.
If participants had been more strategic about their task, they might have evoked more abstract concepts, such as the properties a creature might need to survive given a planet's particular environmental conditions. In this case, rather than thinking about animals such as lions, bears, or ducks, they might have thought about all living things. Perhaps they then would have looked to single-celled organisms for inspiration—or to things that can replicate themselves, in which case they might have eventually considered planets that divide and spawn new ones.
In the end, remember that your creative output depends critically on where you start. So, don't think differently. Think about different things.
Art Markman is a psychologist at The University of Texas and the author of Smart Thinking.
In physically demanding tasks, like lifting heavy weights, and in tedious tasks, like counting beans, we do better when we are being evaluated than when we are not. But in tasks that require creativity, new insights, or learning, we do better when we are not being evaluated, so are not afraid of failure.
Support for this idea comes from Harvard Business School psychologist Teresa Amabile, who, in numerous experiments, sought the conditions that enhance or diminish creativity. She asked participants—sometimes children, sometimes adults—to produce a creative product, such as a collage, a poem, or a short story. Then the products were evaluated for creativity by a panel of experts. Though performed independently, the judges' evaluations were quite consistent from one to another. In general, they deemed creative those products that were original and surprising, yet also somehow meaningful and coherent.
In several experiments, Amabile told some of the participants that their products would be evaluated for creativity by an expert panel. For others, she then added that their product would be entered into a contest—with prizes for the most creative products. A third group of participants were told nothing.
In experiment after experiment, the participants who made the most creative products were those who didn't know their work would be evaluated. They were just playing—not concerned about judgments or rewards.
These findings support the work of another psychologist, Barbara Fredrickson of The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She theorizes that positive emotions broaden our perception and thought—allowing us to put ideas and information together in new, creative, useful ways—while negative emotions narrow our perceptions and thought, because we are focusing primarily on the stimulus that initiated the emotion (for example, an evaluator, or the consequences of failure).
Both these ways of perceiving and thinking are useful; both are products of natural selection. When not faced with immediate threats to our survival, we use our minds to find new ways of doing things and help one another. Faced with immediate threats, we use our minds to deal with the threat (if a tiger is chasing us, it's best to use well-learned ways of escaping from it, not dream up new ways of doing so). Fresh ideas run the risk of failure, so we're biologically constructed to cut creativity off when failure has serious consequences.
Evaluation, when it is not asked for and when it has consequences, as it does in school or at work, is a threat. It inhibits new learning and new insights. Of course feedback from an expert can be helpful in improving any idea or product, especially if it is sought by the creator. But creativity is stifled if the main goal becomes feedback—either receiving the positive or avoiding the negative. It's no wonder children are less creative when classrooms are centered on evaluation. For students who take academics seriously, continual testing creates continual threat. Their minds are focused on fears: How do I deal with this test? How do I please this teacher?
It's hard to be creative in such conditions. Feedback generally promotes effort—because we want to impress the evaluator—but effort is insufficient for creativity. We can't be more creative just by trying harder. We must relax in a way that permits the full engagement of unconscious mental processes—ones that generate unusual associations and new ideas. These work best when we are playing, not when we are striving for praise or a reward.
Peter Gray is a research psychologist at Boston College and the author of Free to Learn.
Concentration Is Creativity's Killer
How many times have you run up against a roadblock in your thinking about a problem at work, in school, or even in a relationship? Try as you might, you just can't come up with that formidable idea to pitch to a client or a way to extract yourself from the middle of a dispute between two of your closest friends. Yet by zeroing in on the situation in front of you, you may make the task even tougher.
Say you are at work, charged with developing an innovative advertising campaign for a prospective client. You stop everything you're doing, sit down at your desk, and concentrate as hard as you can. Yet, this type of focus may actually make it more difficult to get the creative juices flowing than if you hadn't jumped into the project full force.
Consider the Greek scientist Archimedes, who, as legend has it, was tasked with figuring out whether the King's new crown was really made of solid gold. Archimedes couldn't simply break open the crown, because that would have destroyed it. He didn't know what to do. It wasn't until he was getting in the bath one day—not thinking about much at all—that he noticed that the level of the water rose as he got in. Archimedes realized he could use the amount of water displaced by an object (such as a crown) to determine its volume and, in turn, its density (and ultimately, whether the crown was made purely from gold or whether it also contained silver, which is less dense).
The story of Archimedes exemplifies what psychologists are only now discovering about the power of letting your mind wander. When you're stuck on a problem that needs a creative solution, turning your attention to something that requires just a little bit of concentration is a better way to jump-start the creative process than focusing intently on the original task.
Whether it's a walk in the woods, surfing the sports scores, or even taking a bath, doing something that doesn't require too much mental effort helps you connect your thoughts in new and unusual ways. Activities that engage your body can be especially good at helping you come up with new and innovative ideas.
Research suggests that moving freely—walking outdoors, pacing around the room, or even gesturing with one hand and then the other—triggers the free flow of ideas needed for creative breakthroughs.
We have the power to either hinder or facilitate the mechanics of creative problem solving. Knowing that the very time we believe we should be chained to our desks mulling over a problem is when we should actually put work aside and take a break can help us come up with new and unusual solutions.
Sian Beilock is a psychologist at The University of Chicago and author of Choke.
The Downside of Avoiding Imitation
Why do people create art, invent machines, or compose songs? We know that creativity has been central to existence since an artist (or artists), 40,000 years ago, painted arresting images on the walls of the El Castillo cave in Spain. Some even believe there is a distinctively human "art instinct" that drives us to create novel and beautiful things.
Institutionally, however, we take a different view of what drives creativity. Our system of patent and copyright law is meant to produce an abundance of inventions and new artistic works. It does so not by appealing to any possible art instinct, but rather, our desire for money. Copyright and patent laws are intended to spur creativity by making sure creators and inventors reap the economic rewards of their innovation. And anyone who tries to copy what they create will be punished.
In short, our legal system focuses on external, tangible incentives to create. Whether that makes sense depends on whether creators actually respond rationally to these incentives. New research in economics and psychology, however, suggests that they do not.
Why? Because humans tend to be bad at assessing future prospects, especially related to their own lives. We have self-serving biases. We overestimate success and discount failure. Nearly all newlyweds, for example, believe they will not get divorced, but a minority eventually will. Students overestimate their likely grades. Like the residents of Lake Wobegon, we all want to believe we're above average.
Moreover, according to recent research by Illinois Institute of Technology professor Christopher Buccafusco and Univeristy of Virginia's Christopher Sprigman, the most creative types in our midst are just as prone to overoptimism as any of us. Subjects in this experiment were art students who were invited to enter a medium-size painting into a contest, judged by an expert, in which they would be competing with nine others for a $100 prize. Each painter was matched with another subject acting as a bidder.
After looking at the 10 paintings, each bidder wrote down the amount he or she would be willing to pay to purchase a specific painter's chance to win the prize. (In other words, the bidders estimated the odds that a given painter would win.) Similarly, the painters each wrote down the amount they would be willing to accept to hand over their chance of winning the prize to a bidder.
You can probably guess that painters and bidders had very different predictions about winning. Painters wildly exaggerated their chances; bidders were much more sober. In fact, painters demanded nearly $75, on average, to trade away a one-in-10 chance of winning a $100 prize. Bidders were willing to pay less than $18 to purchase that same chance. The biggest cause of this divergence was the painters' strong optimism bias; they believed that they had more than a 50 percent chance of winning the contest. The real number was (on average) 10 percent.
This finding adds to the growing body of evidence on optimism bias. But it's also key to understanding creativity and the policies that are meant to promote it. These same policies sometimes get in the way of creativity, and the existence of optimism bias suggests that we can improve practices so we can enjoy even more creative works.
One implication of the painting study is that optimism bias acts as a subsidy for innovation. Those who overestimate success will likely invest more in their creativity. And that, in turn, is apt to lead to increased output. If creators rationally calculated the odds, they would venture less, since chances of success in a crowded field are generally low. But thanks to optimism bias, they don't realize just how low. They (irrationally) invest a lot in their creativity—giving the rest of us more of their work to enjoy.
This irrational optimism, and the overinvestment in creativity it spurs, suggests that our society can do with less copyright and patent protection than previously thought. That's important, because too much legal protection actually makes it hard to be truly creative. Very little, if anything, is wrought out of nothing. In practice, creativity is a cumulative process, one that often involves tweaking, adapting, and melding existing creations.
Older works are often the building blocks of new ones. Just think of Romeo and Juliet leading to West Side Story, or the Twilight novels spawning 50 Shades of Grey (Twilight, in turn, drew on traditions of the Quileute tribe in Washington State). Patent and copyright laws are aimed at promoting creativity, but in fact they often stymie new work because they require creators to obtain permission for older material they wish to use and adapt.
That our laws can get in the way of creativity might be acceptable if strong patent and copyright protections were necessary to spur artists to create. Most everyone recognizes that patents and copyrights that last forever would be too much, which is why our constitution requires they be granted for "limited times." The real question is how much protection—and how much ability to share, adapt, and rework—we should have. The new findings on optimism bias imply that shorter patent and copyright terms might strike a better balance. Thanks to irrationally optimistic creators, we would still see new art, literature, and inventions—and those materials would be freed up more quickly to serve as inputs for others' creativity.
Christopher Sprigman, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law, and Kal Raustiala, a professor at UCLA, are coauthors of The Knockoff Economy.
Battling Boredom Thwarts Serendipity
After a day of chasing productivity, I sometimes head to the pool to swim laps. Here's the thing about swimming: It's boring. I can't read, watch a movie, or email—all I can do is swim.
At first, my mind battles the boredom. I have the urge to switch to a treadmill, where I can watch TV. But if I can avoid the allure of entertainment, my mind moves through the boredom and begins to meander.
The mind in this state has no particular aim. It's not efficient or directed. It revisits experiences, scans for opportunities, plays with problems—and that's when creativity comes alive. These days, we rarely reach the point of boredom, thanks to gadgets and anytime, anywhere entertainment. Occupying our brains is too easy—and that's killing our creativity.
When was the last time you rode an elevator and didn't pull out your phone? Every free moment has become an opportunity to get something done, or at least be entertained. But doing nothing, being bored, is a precious thing. My best ideas come when I'm running without my iPod, simply sitting, waiting for someone, or lying in bed before I go to sleep. These "wasted" moments are the ones in which we often unconsciously connect the dots.
The value of unfilled time is one many must work to appreciate—and to teach to the next generation. Recently, I noticed how busy my 10-year-old is. Reading, doing homework, eating (while reading), bathing—Isabelle is nonstop from the end of the school day until I rush her off to bed, worried about how little sleep she gets.
Normally, when I tuck Isabelle in, I invent a story for her on the fly. But one night I wanted her to have the creative experience. "You tell a story," I said. She refused. "Then let's just talk," I suggested. She was silent as her mind acclimated to the quiet. She asked a question, voiced a thought. Soon she was brimming with ideas she was contemplating, dilemmas she was struggling with. Her comments were curious and inventive. It's amazing what a little boredom can create.
Peter Bregman is the author of 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done.