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“You are Sooo Random!” - Randomness & Creativity Research

“You are Sooo Random!” - Randomness & Creativity Research

One of the advantages of being disorderly is that one is constantly making exciting discoveries.
(A.A. Milne)

If you were a rabbit, fleeing from a fox, would you be more successful if following a predictable path, or a path that zigzags, unpredictably and randomly? If you are an average kind of rabbit, who does not want to be eaten and who wants to pass on his/her genes, it would serve you well to escape in a zigzag manner, completely randomly. The fox will then become confused and give up, while you make it home in time for a firefly-lit dinner of fresh carrots and cabbage. That's the animal world. In the human world (granted also animal, but with a larger frontal lobes), randomness has been suggested to evolve into what is now known as human creativity. If something is random, it is by definition variable, different, unlike a stereotypical thought (response, product, etc).

But does creativity really benefit from randomness? Just think of children or individuals with psychopathology - their answers can be random and thus very different, but can these answers be called creative? In the research world, it is agreed that creativity requires novel AND appropriate responses. Thus it seems a combination of randomness and lack of it (focus?) might be necessary. We set out to explore such musings in our recent study. In the laboratory, participants were asked to generate numbers on a computer keyboard (Random Number Generation task). Then their creative potential was assessed, as well as their actual creative achievement history. It turned out that both random and non-random processes were involved. Specifically, being random was predictive of creative fluency, which is simply generating as many responses to a given task as possible. Randomness was also related to creative flexibility, or the ability to switch between categories. However, being LESS random was predictive of creative originality, or the number of responses that are unique, as well as of actual creative achievement.

These findings provide support for the idea that creativity does not only involve looser association, defocused or focused attention, lack of fixedness, etc. (suggested in literature), but most likely it is about being flexible, and knowing (either consciously and/or subconsciously) what is functional and when. We reached a similar conclusion in another study of ours, where we found that creative folks displayed more flexible cognitive control. Oshin Vartainian also reported that creative people were better at adjusting their focus of attention as a function of task demands. Based on the provided support, it is apparent then that it's advantageous to be as random as possible for generation of ideas, but sticking with a particular response is predictive of creative originality.

So next time your friends say that you are "sooo random," hold your head up high and keep at it. But don't forget to spot those brilliant ideas among the dis-order, and focus. Such is the recipe for creativity.


Miller, G. F. (2000). The mating mind. New York: Random House.

Vartanian, O. (2009). Variable attention facilitates creative problem solving.Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 3, 57-59.

Zabelina, D. L. (2010). Creativity and randomness (Unpublished master's thesis). North Dakota State University, Fargo, ND.

Zabelina, D. L., & Robinson, M. D. (in press). Creativity as flexible cognitive control. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts.

More from Darya L. Zabelina Ph.D.
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