U.S. Navy photo by Senior Chief Mass Communication Specialist Gary Ward via Wikimedia Commons
A High Five.
Source: U.S. Navy photo by Senior Chief Mass Communication Specialist Gary Ward via Wikimedia Commons

How do you feel during those moments when you are being most creative?  Do you confidently and surely know, in the moment, that creative ideas are emerging and forming in your mind?  Is there a smooth, easy, and ready flow of your ideas?  Or is your creative process rather more bumpy and uneven?  Is it more akin to moving –– in small stuttering spurts and starts –– down a pot-hole filled country lane than to gracefully gliding along in a canoe? 

What are your assumptions about how the creative idea generation process "should" feel?  How do you know if you should persist in your search for inspiration, or if you'd best turn your mind and efforts to other things?

Taking up these questions, two researchers at Northwestern University hypothesized that people often underestimate the value of persistence in generating creative ideas.  To test this notion, they conducted a series of seven studies, each following a similar two-phase format, with various types of creative and non-creative tasks.

In the first phase of each study, participants were given a particular creative or problem-solving task and asked to generate as many ideas or solutions as they could during a set period of time (for example, generating unusual uses for a cardboard box for 4 minutes).  Next, participants were asked to estimate how many more ideas or solutions they would be able to generate if they continued working and thinking for an additional period of time (say, 4 more minutes).  Then, in the second phase of each study, participants actually continued working on the idea generation task for the same amount of time (that is, 4 more minutes).

This two-phase format allowed the researchers to compare the number of ideas that people predicted they would be able to generate by continuing to stick with the creative problem-solving task with the number of ideas that they actually, in fact, were able to generate.

Let's look at a few of their studies.

Example Study A:  Generating original ideas of what to eat or drink for Thanksgiving dinner

Twenty-four Northwestern University students, in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, were asked to generate original ideas for what to eat or drink for Thanksgiving dinner.  The students were told that independent judges would rate each of their ideas for originality, and that for each idea rated as above average, they would earn a raffle ticket to be entered into a $50 lottery.    

In their initial ten-minute idea-generation phase, the students came up with an average of about 22 ideas.  Before launching into the second phase, the students predicted that, given a further ten minutes, they would generate about 10 more ideas.  But –– when put to the test –– they generated an average of 15 more ideas.  So, the students underestimated their further idea generation performance by one-third.  This under-prediction effect was large and statistically significant. 

But what about the quality of the students' ideas?  It wasn't simply that their additional ideas were just pale variations on their initially generated suggestions.  Online raters using the internet task platform Amazon Mechanical Turk rated the quality (originality) of the ideas created during the time of persistence as significantly higher in quality.  So, by persisting, the students generated considerably more ideas than they had expected they could, and those ideas were rated as more original than the ideas they had come up with earlier in the idea generation process.

Example Study B:  Coming up with creative (vs. common) culinary uses of peanut butter

Two hundred and twenty-two participants on Amazon Mechanical Turk were asked to suggest ways to use or incorporate peanut butter into foods or drinks.  About half of the participants were asked to generate "creative" ideas for how to use peanut butter; the other half were asked to provide "common" ideas.  Participants generated ideas for two minutes, predicted how many more ideas they could generate if they continued with the generation task for two more minutes, then continued for two minutes. 

Both groups of participants under-predicted how many further ideas they could produce.  But, intriguingly, participants asked to generate creative (novel and interesting/appetizing) ideas under-predicted to a significantly greater extent than did those who were asked to generate common uses.  And it wasn't just the quantity of the creative generator's ideas that improved: persistence again paid off in higher originality.

Example Study C:  Casting for clinchers for comedy-sketches

Forty-five participants who had expertise in comedy-sketch writing, and had been selected to take part in a 10-day comedy festival, were invited to try out a brief online comedy writing task.  Asked to generate comedic endings for a brief sketch, the scenario read: 

"Four people are laughing hysterically on stage. Two of them high five and everyone stops laughing immediately and someone says ____________ .”   

Even these experienced participants significantly under-predicted how many endings they could produce if they persisted past their initial four minutes of idea generation time.  Regardless of how much prior experience the participants had in comedy writing (ranging from self-identified professional or aspiring professional comedians to amateur or hobbyist comedians) they under-predicted how many new ideas they would be able to generate for the brief sketch if they stuck with it for an additional four minutes.

Why do we underestimate the "creative yield" of persistence?

The studies demonstrated under-prediction of the "creative yield" that might be achieved through persistence across many different types of creative tasks.  Why do we show such a consistent failure to fully appreciate the inspirational value of persistence?

One important factor appears to be that there is a disconnect between how something feels to us while we're being creative and the actual progress we are making.  From the inside, it may feel as though we are not fluently coming up with any more new ideas, and we're rapidly waning.  This subjective feeling of disfluency or unease may lead us to underestimate how many ideas we could generate if only we kept at it. 

MUTCD, 2003
Sometimes the path to novelty is a rough road.
Source: MUTCD, 2003

Research shows that people often use how easy it is to do something or how smoothly it seems to flow when judging things.  Similarly, when we are searching for creative insights and the process starts to have a bumpy, creaky, uncertain feel, this may lead us to infer that our idea search is no longer fruitful.  But we should hang in there!    

Creativity is complicated:  Sometimes continuing on despite those bumpy potholes is just what is needed for breakthroughs to occur.  In discussing the concept of cognitive "control dialing" in Innovating Minds: Rethinking Creativity to Inspire Change (page 122) we explain:  

"Our performance of even brief creative ideation tasks (e.g., generating alternative uses for a common object such as a penny or a paper clip) is initially supported by more automatic processes (e.g., based on memory retrieval).  With continued time and engagement in the task, however, we increasingly draw upon our more effortfully persistent attempts at analysis and structured exploration. 

We may need to exercise focused deliberate control in order to overcome our tendencies to take the 'path of least resistance,' persisting past our ready-to-mind thoughts to find novel combinations and possibilities."   

To think about

  • When generating ideas for a problem, do you tend to stop a little too soon?  Would calling upon some persistence allow you to unearth thus-far-undiscovered original and valuable ideas?
  • Rather than creative inspiration as times of "being in the flow" should we, instead, think of our creative search times as times of "scratching" –– an expression used by the acclaimed choreographer and dancer Twyla Tharp for the uncertain gathering and starting and trialing phases at the outset of our new creative problems. 
  • What analogies would better prompt you to stay with the searching process –– even when it feels bumpy and filled with sputtering starts and stops?
  • If you keep underestimating your creative progress and repeatedly stop too early, what unexpected creative heights might you be missing?
  • What assumptions about your own inspirational and aspirational thinking are blocking the way to your own –– deeply surprising –– "high five" endings?

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