Unveiling an Underappreciated Key to Creativity

Using detail stepping to power new insights

Posted Apr 02, 2016

“Cafecito” by Juanedc via Wikimedia Commons

Drinking coffee in Zaragoza, Spain.

Source: “Cafecito” by Juanedc via Wikimedia Commons

You and your friend regularly enjoy afternoon coffee together.  Today, your friend offers you a cup of coffee in a new, attractive mug.  You begin to take a sip and are startled to find that the cup is decidedly heavier than you had anticipated, at least twice as heavy. 

How might the unusual weightiness of the mug influence your thinking compared with if you were drinking from a typical coffee mug?

Would you expect that encountering the heavy mug would change how attentively you were acting?  Would it change how you thought about what you were doing?

This example, taken from our book, Innovating Minds: Rethinking Creativity to Inspire Change, brings home many underappreciated features of our everyday thinking.    

Although you might most often characterize your afternoon coffee routine in rather abstract terms — as time spent relaxing, conversing, and sharing ideas — your encounter with the unexpectedly heavy mug might instead lead you to think more concretely.  Now you might attend to how — exactly — you were lifting, tipping, and drinking from the mug, finding yourself thinking about swallowing, avoiding spilling, and placing the mug on the table with extra care.  

These many fine-grained and separate subcomponents of the activity of drinking coffee are usually hidden away under your more abstract way of framing your goal of sharing time together.  They quickly emerge, though, into the foreground of your awareness when your actions meet with unexpected difficulty or unanticipated change.

So what (really) do you think you are doing?

Based on a classic research study by Robin Vallacher and Daniel Wegner, the unexpectedly heavy coffee drinking mug was used to experimentally demonstrate how and when we change what is known as our level of action or goal identification.  

Any action and intended action (goal) can be thought of at many levels of abstraction.  As you are reading these words, many things are going on at once.  You are moving your eyes across the screen, comprehending a sentence, and trying to better understand a concept.  Each of these is a description or identification of your action or goal.

Relatively lower levels of action or goal identification typically concern how an action is done (such as moving your eyes across the screen).  Comparatively higher levels of action or goal identification often concern why an action is done or the effects of an action (such as trying to better understand a concept).

Identifying our actions and goals at the right level of abstraction for a particular context allows us to be more mentally flexible and creative.  Changing our level of action identification is one way that we can use what we call “detail stepping” to flexibly move around in our thinking and idea spaces.

We typically prefer a somewhat higher level of abstraction in how we identify our actions or goals.  We think of ourselves as engaging in actions such as “driving home,” “visiting a friend,” or “making breakfast” with little attention to the many connected steps and sub-steps needed to achieve these goals.  

Often this way of thinking about what we are doing or trying to accomplish is all that is necessary for many of our routine and highly practiced activities.

But, when we encounter unforeseen obstacles or difficulties in performing an action it can dramatically shift our thinking about even highly practiced actions.  Upon meeting with difficulties in performing a routine activity we tend to step down in our level of action or goal identification.  We then focus our attention and effort on evaluating and adjusting our behavior for the subcomponents of the activity.  For example, upon encountering a sudden downpour of rain, instead of just “driving home,” we might find ourselves focusing on where we are in the lane, how well the windshield wipers are working, and carefully slow down to adjust our distance from the cars ahead of us.

And what’s this all got to do with creativity?

Sometimes we assume we need to be really abstract or “up in the clouds” to be our most creative.  But is it really that simple?  Is abstract thinking always best?

It’s true that often moving upwards toward a more abstract level in our thinking leads to powerful insights.  But given that most of us tend to spend a lot of our time (by default or by habit) in relatively more abstract ways of thinking, might moving toward a more concrete and detailed level of thinking alert us to new possibilities?

Could being in a “creative mindset” actually mean that we’re more open to flexibly moving from where we happen to be?  Does being in a creative mindset encourage us to step up or step down in our level of abstraction — promoting what I call “detail stepping”?

A series of studies by an international group of researchers suggests that the answer to this question is “yes.”  They encouraged some participants to be in a creative mindset in different ways.  For example, they asked these participants to recall and briefly describe three times they had acted creatively, or asked them to evaluate three highly creative visual ads.  Other participants were not primed.

Participants primed to be in a creative mindset preferred to look at things and information that did not match with where they currently were in their abstraction space.  They were inclined to embrace ideas that were incompatible with their current level of thinking, whether abstract or concrete. 

In contrast, participants who were not primed, or who were primed to be in a more conventional mindset, preferred, instead, to remain exactly where they were: they liked best those ideas that were most compatible with their current way of thinking.

Why might this be?  A clue was provided by the thoughts that participants wrote about their preferences.  Creative mindset participants were especially drawn to novel or unexpected ideas.

So, just having a creative mindset can shake us out of our habitual thought processes, encouraging us to step up or down in our abstraction space, and increase our receptivity to newness.  Then we may welcome, rather than reject, novel ideas. 

Fostering creative mindsets — by detail stepping

How then might we boost our creative mindsets? 

  • Try vividly recalling three times when you were especially creative.  What exactly were your goals, and how did you work to meet them?
  • How are you currently thinking about “what you’re up to”?  Are you too abstract?  Are you too specific?  Can you change how you are thinking of your goals, to open up new possibilities?
  • Do your goals explicitly include the goal of being creative — with all that that implies?  Or are your goals simply (for example) to get something done?   
  • Could you introduce an obstacle (or new constraint) in your creative pursuits that would prompt you to slow down and notice more concrete subcomponents of what you’re doing and open up new possible “next moves” for you?  What if, rather than facing a blank canvas, you started with a canvas that had five random lines on it?  How would this change your painting approach?  Your goals? 

In a future blog post we’ll explore how providing new constraints can, paradoxically, free us to see new possibilities. 

For more ways to think about detail stepping in our creative lives see Part 2 of Innovating Minds: Rethinking Creativity to Inspire Change

See also my earlier Psychology Today blog post “Inside Creativity.”