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Of Puppies, Play, and the Pursuit of Creative Insights

A simple reminder to "be creative" opens our eyes to novel analogies.

Source: Jonathan Kriz/Wikimedia Commons
Source: Jonathan Kriz/Wikimedia Commons

How much do you think creativity is something enduring and permanent that remains constant across time—that is, you either have it or you don't? Or how much do you think creativity depends on the situation or context you are in, and so fluctuates up and down?

Let's look at a recent study from researchers at Georgetown University that demonstrates how even a small difference in the situation or context makes a big difference in creativity.

Participants in the study were first asked to read paired sets of words, such as "puppy is to dog" as "colt is to horse" and to indicate if the analogy was valid or not. That is, they were asked to decide: Was the relation between the first pair of words similar to the relation between the second pair of words?

Some of the analogies they read were easily recognized as valid, because the two pairs of words were similar to one another in meaning. For example, both puppies and colts are young animals, and both dogs and horses are mature animals. This is an example of what's called a within domain analogy because both pairs of words relate to animals and animal development.

Other analogies were more difficult because the two pairs of words were more dissimilar (or remote) in meaning, for example, "puppy is to dog" as "spark is to fire." Here spark and fire may (at first) seem quite unrelated to puppy and dog. Yet both of them do share a common relation in that a puppy grows into a dog, and a spark grows into a fire. This is an example of an across domain analogy.

The surprising and important finding was how much performance changed when participants were instructed also to "be creative" and to try to think abstractly when they were looking for valid analogies. When the instructions included an explicit encouragement to "be creative" the participants correctly identified many more of the remote or across-domain analogies.

Why was this? The improvement wasn't due to social pressure because everything was done online, and there was no experimenter physically present. The improvement also wasn't because of practice. Another study done with a large group of participants showed that when people did the two analogies one after the other, there was essentially no practice effect.

Why would the simple instruction to "be creative" enable people to see the similarity of the relation between other more far-flung or remote sorts of things? The prompt to "be creative" may lead us to look more closely or open our "mental eyes" to the non-obvious. It can help us set aside an overly literal view of things, and enable us to recognize abstract relations that we otherwise might have missed.

Seeing a similarity of how two things might be related is central to many creative leaps. Here's one example, borrowed from our book, Innovating Minds: Rethinking Creativity to Inspire Change (p. 52):

"Take, for example, an industrial design studio team tasked with developing a movable x-ray stand. Although there are many alternative ways in which this design challenge might be approached, one of the design team members drew on knowledge of the steering mechanism of a small ferryboat pulling itself along a cable across a river. Recalling a much earlier summer he had spent working alongside a ferryman, his recollection evolved into a novel approach for steering and moving the x-ray stand in a long, steady, linear motion. Creativity here emerged through an analogy that abstracted one key component of a much earlier experience and introduced it into a new creative problem-solving context."

Some questions to ponder

  • If some people seem to be creative most of the time, could this be because they regularly and explicitly self-refresh their goal to "be creative" and so are always on the look-out for new opportunities? Could you make creativity your habit?
  • The instructions the researchers gave to participants were not simply to "try to be more creative" but also encouraged them to think more abstractly. Could you explicitly prompt yourself, at certain times, to think more abstractly?
  • Do you have competing goals that restrictively hem in your creativity? For example, do you need something to be perfect? Or, to be quick, or just checked off of your "to do" list?
  • Do you believe that being creative is easy and requires little effort? Or do you think that coming up with and recognizing creative possibilities is something that you need to work and play hard at? Maybe being creative is more like tending a puppy — giving your time, thought, and effort to the caring process, so that (like a well-tended puppy) the process itself can surprise and delight you?
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