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The Upside of Chance

Make chance work for you.

J. Krueger
Source: J. Krueger

Alea iacta est. ~ Gaius Iulius

There is an upside to chance; it is an ingredient to creativity and happiness, and you can use it. I have commented on chance (e.g.), creativity (e.g.), and happiness (e.g.) a number of times. All three topics cut close to our experience with life and all are easily misunderstood. Students and other laypeople confuse chance with improbability, misattribute creativity to genius, and think that happiness is either your sole responsibility or (sometimes ‘and’) that you can do nothing about it. Today, we focus on the nexus between chance and creativity, leaving it for a later time to show that both have beneficial effects on happiness.

Today’s essay is a guest-one written by Professor Ian Gonsher. From his perch in the Engineering Department at Brown University, Ian directs many efforts and initiatives to foster creative design. One of his projects is Positive Sum Design, i.e., the idea and practice of revealing or creating nonzero-sum games where habit and convention only see win-lose scenarios.

The challenge is a psychological one: how do we change, expand, and liberate perception and cognition, so that habitually unseen options and opportunities come into view? One way to do this is by increasing ritual and habit. Konrad Lorenz, B. F. Skinner, Sigmund Freud, among others, hewed to a strict daily schedule when creative thought was to flow. And it did, mostly. Another way is to keep the hierarchy of mental associations flat so that activation can spread with little resistance. Yet another way is to introduce chance to give the unexpected a chance, so to speak. As Ian explains, this strategy combines elements of outright counter-moves to established custom or ritual with true randomness. A certain Max Hawkins has developed an app for that. His experiences with chance are instructive and encouraging. Go and try some of this at home (or rather, get out of the home and drift). But be safe now!    

Here is Ian’s report:

I. Gonsher
Ian Gonsher
Source: I. Gonsher

Between Reaction and Randomness: Creativity and the Anti-Ritual

A creative process gives structure to the manner in which a creative product occurs. Creative process is the progression of an idea from the abstract to the concrete, arriving at a creative product that is both novel and useful (Kaufman & Sternberg, 2010). The cultivation of creative practices enhance the creative process. Creative practices “set the table,” and create the conditions for the muse to appear.

Creative practices are much like rituals, which can be defined as meaningful behaviors, typically habituated and repeated over time. These are behaviors that might or might not be directly related to the task at hand, but nonetheless can create the conditions for new insights to emerge. These practices might occur in a significant place or through a meaningful encounter. They might include ritualized behavior, such as writing at your favorite coffee shop or eating together with a group of friends in order to collaboratively explore new ideas. The purpose of these rituals, if we can call them that, aside from their own intrinsic value, is to open up new ways of seeing a situation, and creating the conditions for novel approaches to framing a problem or asking a question.

These kinds of creative practice are, in part, methods for cultivating divergent thinking, which is the ability to come up with many different ideas (Guilford, 1957). Brainstorming and ideating embody divergent thinking, and when done artfully, open up new, unconsidered possibilities that can be further elaborated and developed as the process moves towards the product.

But rituals can also impede creativity by becoming too fixed over time, taking us back to the same place over and over again when what we really want is to get somewhere new. Therefore, critique and reinvention are also necessary as a complement to these kinds of rituals that structure the way we move through our daily lives.

As a complement to these kinds of ritual, we might consider what we could call “anti-rituals”. For the purposes of our discussion, these are rituals that disrupt the quotidian rituals of daily life. Anti-rituals allow us to unlearn and attend to what we might otherwise take for granted, and more generally, critique the way we make meaning through these behaviors; anti-rituals allow us to challenge the way we see the signal through the noise, and help us recognize emerging order in what is otherwise just inconspicuous and ignored.

This kind of critique can be a productive form of creative practice. An anti-ritual is, metaphorically, taking the long way home, even though it might not be the most efficient way to get your destination. There is a risk that is involved in this. But embracing the randomness and chance you encounter along the way can be fertile ground to develop new insights.

We are hardwired to make meaning out of the noisy world around us. Since time immemorial, divination and prophecy were often dependent on strategies that molded randomness and chance into something meaningful. The I Ching and Tarot are well-known examples. More recently, beginning in the early 20th century, artists and musicians began to embrace these practices as well. Dada, aleatoric music, and more recently, computer based generative art, are examples which have produced copious creative output based on randomness, and in doing so, given us new vantage points from which to reconsider what creative process and product might look like.

But beginning the journey without a destination may seem like a counterintuitive, if not risky way to enhance a process that is meant to be directed, eventually, towards a final meaningful outcome. And yet, by letting go of the product, at least temporarily, unconsidered opportunities are given the chance to appear.

One such creative practice draws on the “Situationist” technique of the dérive (Debord, 1956) Dérive is French for drift. This creative practice can be described as a meandering walk, typically through an urban environment (We’ll always have Paris), in a way that is meant to open up the flaneur to new ways of seeing the relationships between the people and things and spaces that he or she might encounter along the way. These are relationships that are often obscured by our habitual patterns. A little randomness can retune us to the abundant life teeming around us all the time, hiding in plain sight. This creates an opportunity to participate in ways we might not have otherwise considered.

In The Theory of the Dérive, Guy Debord, provides a guide for this Situationist practice. The Situationists were a loosely affiliated group that existed mainly in France from the late 1950’s until the early 1970’s, and who were critical of the alienation and commodity fetishism that they saw as pervasive in Late Capitalism. Their ideas were influential in shaping the Events of May of '68. They developed theories that offered alternatives to Capitalism, and from these ideas, were able to develop new creative practices (i.e. anti-rituals) such as the dérive and the détournement. Debord describes the dérive as follows:

“In a derive, one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there. Chance is a less important factor in this activity than one might think: from a dérive point of view cities have psychogeographical contours, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes [sic] that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones.”

The dérive, and walking more generally, enhance our creativity for a variety of reasons. When we insert ourselves into a place outside the circle of our familiar situations, we are invited to hone our attention and raise kinds of awareness that might otherwise remain beneath the threshold of consciousness. This is why travel to foreign countries forces us to attend to details in ways we might not when immersed in the rituals of our everyday lives (Gurman, 1989).

Walking also increases our ability to think divergently (Oppezzo & Schwartz, 2014). As we pass by new, unplanned and unexpected stimuli in the environment, we open ourselves up to new ideas. Long walks help us find “flow” –  a state where one is fully engaged in an activity to a degree that they lose all sense of time (Csikszentmihalyi, 1996). Walking is a creative practice that prepares the mind to receive new thoughts. It is, of course, also quite good for your physical health.

As Guy Debord points out, these activities are not wholly random. There is often an unconscious pull that guides us. There is a deep structure that hides behind the randomness and noise. These kinds of creative practices can better attune us to these deep structures, both in ourselves and in our environment, and give us new ways of seeing the world around us.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996). Flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. New York: Harper Collins.

Debord, G. L.(1956). Theory of the Derive. Situationist International Online. Translated by Ken Knabb.

Guilford, J. P. (1957). Creative abilities in the arts. Psychological Review, 64, 110-118.

Gurman, E. B. (1989). Travel abroad: A way to increase creativity? Educational Research Quarterly, 13, 12-16.

Kaufman, J. C., & Sternberg, R. J. (Eds.). (2010). The Cambridge handbook of creativity. NY: Cambridge University Press.

Oppezzo, M., & Schwartz, D. L. (2014). Give your ideas some legs: The positive effect of walking on creative thinking. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 40, 1142-1152.