A new study from Vanderbilt University* reveals that double majors are more creative, and are better able to integrate knowledge across disciplines, than students who don't double major. This finding is consistent with a solid finding in creativity research: That you have better and more original ideas when you combine different bodies of knowledge. As study co-author Steven Tepper put it, "Double majors give students the opportunity to build bridges between domains of knowledge." This is why creative people tend to be so receptive to learning new things; in my new book Zig Zag, I write:

Successful creators are curious by nature. They ask questions and listen closely to the answers, even when the information has no obvious relationship to what they're working on at the moment. (p. 66).

For this new study, the researchers interviewed over 1,700 college seniors at nine different universities. Nineteen percent of them were double majors. The researchers then categorized the double majors, based on how similar or different their two majors were. About one-third of them chose two majors that were closely related, like two humanities majors. The researchers called these students "deepeners." About one-tenth of them went for the most radical combination: an arts major and a hard science major. The researchers called these students the "spanners." (The rest of the double majors paired a social science major with arts, humanities, or science, and the researchers considered these combinations to be right in the middle in terms of difference of material.)

The deepeners were the best at integrating knowledge across disciplines. The spanners were almost as good, though; and in addition, the spanners were more likely to think creatively. 

This finding is consistent with one of the most solid discoveries of creativity research: That surprising and original ideas are more likely when you combine material from very different areas. Creativity researchers refer to this as "distant combination" or "remote association," and study after study shows it enhances creativity. After all, practicing scientists know that many leaps forward come from interdisciplinary work.

In my book Zig Zag, I describe several techniques that can help you tap into these kinds of creative thinking:

  • I advise you to branch out, to study subjects in other areas that are somehow related to your problem. If you want to build a better mousetrap, don't just study mechanical engineering; also study animal behavior, even home construction (to figure out how the mice get into your house in the first place).
  • Be a professional dilettante, where you learn a little bit about a lot of things: like UCLA student Jeremy Gleick, who dedicates one hour every day to be his "learning hour." He's now logged over 1,000 hours.
  • I tell the story of how Steve Jobs, while hanging around Reed College after dropping out, was sitting in on random classes just to pass the time. One of them was a calligraphy class, where he learned about typefaces and serif and sans serif fonts. The course had no practical value, he was just curious. But years later, when Apple was designing the MacIntosh, Jobs insisted that it come with multiple fonts.

Double major if you can! But even if you can't afford to do that, you can still take small steps--like a daily learning hour--to expose yourself to widely varying topics. It's one of the habits of highly creative people, and anyone can do it.

*Dan Berrett, "Double Majors Produce Dynamic Thinkers, Study Finds". Chronicle of Higher Education, March 15, 2013.

You are reading

Zig Zag

Happy Artists

New Research Finds that Artists Are Happier than the Rest of Us

Brain Imaging: What Good Is It?

Brain imaging promises much, but offers little (at least, so far)

Creativity Advice "Greatest Hits"

Free advice from five leading creativity experts