Wilma Koutstaal Ph.D.

Our Innovating Minds

When Emotion Meets Thinking

An untold story of creativity

Posted Jun 04, 2017

pdpics via Wikimedia Commons
Putting sadness in creative focus
Source: pdpics via Wikimedia Commons

Sometimes in trying to understand creativity and emotion we draw hard and fast rules.  We are quick to see the potential of positive moods for creativity and for helping us see the big picture.  But we underplay the role of negative moods –– seeing them as leading us to narrowly focus on the trees, and miss the forest.

Can it be that the human mind, and the human mind when it meets with the messy complexities of emotion, is altogether that simple and tidy?  What might happen if (for whatever reason) our thinking processes were predominantly detail-focused and our mood was quite positive?  Or if our thinking processes were broad and abstract but our mood was somewhat sad?

Thinking meets mood

Taking up the challenge of better mapping out when the typical mood-and-thinking generalizations do, or do not, hold, researchers at Loyola University in Chicago recently conducted several 3-step (thinking + mood + creativity) experiments.

The first step –– the thinking phase –– concentrated on moving participants in detail space.  Participants were "procedurally primed" to focus either on specific details (the trees) or on broader overarching patterns (the forest).  They were asked to identify letters presented on the computer screen as quickly and accurately as possible.  Each letter was itself made up of smaller letters:  for example, a large H made of many small Fs, or a large F made of many smaller Ls.

W Koutstaal
What letter do you see?
Source: W Koutstaal

Unbeknownst to them, some participants were always asked to find the letters that were part of the big-picture configuration.  These participants were "big-picture" primed in their mode of thinking.  Other participants were always asked to find letters that were part of the smaller detailed configuration.  These participants were "detail-primed" in their mode of thinking.  

Next, in the second "emotion" phase, participants were engaged in a task intended to alter their mood, either leading them to feel sad or happy.  For example, participants were asked to collaborate on the construction of a "life-events inventory" that would be used in future research.  Those in the positive mood condition were asked to take 10 minutes to describe as vividly and fully as possible an event that they had experienced that made them "really happy."  In contrast, those in the negative mood condition were instead asked to vividly and fully describe an event that they had experienced that made them "really sad."    

Finally, in the third "creativity" phase, participants were given a creativity-related task.  For example, in one experiment the creative task was to think of as many creative uses as possible for a brick.  In another experiment participants were challenged with creatively solving insight problems.  In a further experiment the creativity task was a category-judgment task in which participants were asked to rate, on a 10-point scale, how well various items belonged to a particular category, such as "furniture."  Some of the examples they were asked to rate were highly typical of the category so most everyone would say they belonged well to the category (e.g., chair, sofa, table).  Other examples were less typical of the category but –– given a broader and creative turn of mind –– might still be thought to belong to the category (e.g., telephone, fan, vase).   

So what happened?

The intriguing finding was that creativity did not depend only on emotion (happy or sad), or only on the thinking mode (big-picture or detailed) that participants were in.  Creativity depended on the combination of participants' detail mindset and their mood. 

Participants who were first primed to be in a "big picture" frame of mind (looking for the bigger configuration in the letters) and were also encouraged to be in a positive mood (rather than a sad mood) were more creative in the uses of a brick task.  They were also more insightful problem-solvers and more broad and flexible categorizers.  They saw the "not-typical" members of the categories as more strongly belonging to the category than did participants who were primed to be in a "big picture" frame of mind but encouraged to be in a sad mood. 

But what about those who were primed to be in a "detailed" frame of mind?  Now (as diagrammed below) it was participants in a sad mood who were the more creative in the uses of a brick task.  Participants in the sad-plus-detail-primed condition also were more insightful problem-solvers, and were more broadly accepting in their categorization judgments than were the happy-plus-detail-primed participants.   

W Koutstaal
When thinking meets emotion.
Source: W Koutstaal

What to make of all this?

There are two clear interrelated lessons we can take from these research results. 

One lesson:  A detail-oriented perspective is not always detrimental to creativity, nor is a big-picture perspective always beneficial.  It may depend on other factors, including our mood or affective state. 

A second lesson is the flip of the first:  Positive emotion is not always the most beneficial to creativity –– sad moods (especially when combined with a detail-orientation) may also propel our creative insights. 

So, positive emotion isn't always the creative winner.  As we emphasize in Innovating Minds: Rethinking Creativity to Inspire Change:

"Many forms and shades of emotion may contribute to our creative processes.  No one single emotional state is always conducive to creativity.  Across time, the experience of an admixture of emotions—but with positive mood or affect more frequent than negative affect and buoyed throughout with some optimism—may best foster creativity in individuals and groups." (p. 29)

To think about . . .

  • If you are spontaneously experiencing an up-swing in your mood, or a down-swing, do you try to put the feeling state you are in to creative work for you?  Could you move up or down in your level of abstraction to achieve a better (more fruitful) match between your mood and your mindset, to most fully spur and inspire your thinking?
  • The Loyola researchers used the letter identification task to change the level of detail mindset of the participants without their being aware.  In your day-to-day life, what types of activities or actions do you engage in that shift your level of abstraction, up to a more abstract and big picture perspective?  How aware are you of when you are shifting –– and why? 
  • Are you making the most of both your ups and your downs?  There may be many ways in which our emotions can "egg us on" to do our creative best!