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Does Creativity Come From Persistence or Flexibility?

Study shows 'dual path to creativity'

Flickr/Dawn Endico cc license
Source: Flickr/Dawn Endico cc license

Imagine you are brainstorming ways to live a healthier life. This straightforward question was one of the prompts used in a paper on creativity by Dutch researchers, published in the European Review of Social Psychology. Of course, like most of the study's subjects you can probably come up with many possibilities. For example, you might think of something obvious like exercising more. And now you come to an important fork in the road: You can either choose to dig deeper into the category “exercising more” or you can skip to another category. If you choose to explore “exercising more” you are demonstrating cognitive persistence. If you choose to jump to a new category, you are demonstrating cognitive flexibility.

The paper tests these two possible paths to creativity. Which is better? When the going gets tough, should the tough get going or should the tough try something new? More broadly, when you need a creative solution, should you close or open your mind?

There are pitfalls to both approaches. If you choose to persist in one strategy, there's always the chance that it will be one that doesn't work. And when searching for these strategies, the paper writes that people with high cognitive persistence, “only yield original ideas, insights, and solutions after more readily available ideas have been examined and discarded.”

But then with high cognitive flexibility, you may move on too quickly from a strategy that would have worked with a minute’s more futzing. And the paper writes that people with high cognitive flexibility “allow more distant associates and ideas to enter working memory” but that when you allow every harebrained possibility to enter your mind, “it is inevitable that irrelevant thoughts or poor solutions are also considered.”

It is like a road with ditches on either side. On the side of persistence, you can force yourself to slog through uninteresting possibilities. On the side of flexibility, you can be like the golden retriever distracted by squirrels.

Certainly, the paper shows, there were types of problems and types of brains and types of moods that were more conducive to one strategy or the other — insight problems succumbed quickest to flexibility, though persistence eventually worked; people with higher fluid intelligence were able to successfully pilot the strategy of flexibility, whereas persistence was best for Hufflepuffs; and forcing a dour mood actually improved creativity through persistence, whereas priming a rosy outlook made people more successfully flexible.

But the moral of this long paper is that when researchers forced their subjects to be flexible or to persist, BOTH led to creativity (in their own way). When the researchers forced subjects to persist they showed that people eventually came to more original ideas within the category of exercising, like switching out their sedentary workstation for a standing desk. When they forced subjects to be flexible, they showed that people jumped to creative ideas like preventing injury by replacing the old brakes on their bicycle.

If you think broadly enough, you will inevitably happen upon good ideas even among the bad ones. If you think deeply enough, you will eventually dig through mundane ideas and into original ones below. The authors call this a “dual pathway to creativity”.

The danger is not necessarily in picking the wrong path but in picking neither. Can you plumb the depths of your knowledge? Can you test out new possibilities? Great! It seems like both are valid. As long as you are willing to go deep or go wide, you should be able to catch creativity.

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