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The Practicality of Creativity

Creativity is always possible, and can be very useful.

People tend to overlook creativity’s pragmatic side. My students often want to limit “creative tasks” to those that are ambiguous or that are meant to engage our aesthetic sense. It means that creativity gets relegated to inventions or the arts. In other words, creativity is only for special occasions.

But to be creative means to change your perspective, and as I have been discussing, you always have a perspective. It means that even for mundane, unambiguous, day-to-day activities, you could change your perspective. And since perspectives are always simplified mental models of a world too complex for our working memory, it means you can always improve your perspective, even if it seems inconceivable how you might do that.

One of my favorite examples of this relates to fuel economy. So I would like to take you on a creators' journey in the wild-and-crazy world of fuel economy measurement to show the great many practical benefits that can come from a new perspective on a very old problem.

What you know but can’t imagine

Rick Larrick and Jack Soll identified what they called the MPG illusion [1]. They asked people a simple question — Which saves more fuel: A) swapping a 28 MPG vehicle for one that gets 40 MPG, or B) swapping a 12 MPG vehicle for one that gets 14 MPG? The answer is B, but 75 percent of people, myself included when I first heard the question, think it is A. Further, because of the common assumptions people make, they also can’t imagine how it could be B.

The reason for the MPG illusion is actually straightforward: MPG has a non-linear relationship to fuel use. Most people assume a linear relationship – that a 2 MPG increase in fuel efficiency always equates to the same amount of fuel savings. In fact, there are diminishing returns to fuel efficiency and so that same 2 MPG change means less and less as the MPG level increases. Why is incorporating this fact like creative insight? Because it requires changing your perspective on fuel economy. Why does it start a creative journey? Because this change will likely mean more than you imagine it does when you first hear about it.

Telling you that B is the right answer and explaining why may get you to intellectually accept that you were mistaken. But it does not automatically give you the answer to how much fuel is saved. The answer may not even “feel” right because, as I have shown before, thinking with one perspective makes it hard to understand how you could have a different one — even if you know the results of the different perspective. It takes more knowledge to get people to really see past the MPG illusion, such as doing the actual math and plotting how fuel savings diminishes as MPG increases (Figure 1).

Matt Cronin
Figure 1.Diminishing returns of MPG. Note that the red lines are the same length
Source: Matt Cronin

From understanding to acceptance

Even though one can prove option B saves more fuel than A, the same impulse I talked about here, the one that makes us want to say why other perspectives are wrong rather than explore their possibility, may still cause people to deny this conclusion. People say “The relative difference does not matter! You are still burning about 700 gallons per year at 14 MPG versus about 300 at 40 MPG!” This could explain why Larrick and Soll also found that 36 percent of people would rather choose to replace C) one hundred 34 MPG vehicles with 44 MPG instead of D) one hundred 15 MPG vehicles with 19 MPG vehicles [1]. This was even after it was made clear that the D swap would save twice the fuel. Old perspectives die hard because they link to our committed beliefs.

It is why it often takes more time and effort to come around to accepting a new perspective. If people cannot get past the assumption that absolute fuel usage is all that matters, they will dismiss the importance of the MPG illusion. But when we realize that the world needs trucks as well as cars – these perform different functions – we can reap the pragmatic benefits.

Why is this practical?

The problem we have been discussing is one we all face – how to save fuel. In the original choice, option B will save 13 more gallons per year (assuming 10,000 miles driven). The 13 gallons per year savings may seem inconsequential, but if we play out this perspective change, the practical benefits accrue. If you drive more than 10,000 miles you will save more fuel. If you manage a fleet of cars your savings is multiplied by the number in that fleet. With 100 cars you save 1300 gallons. When you have less extreme differences in MPG, the fuel savings can increase exponentially. Choosing to swap the hundred 15 with 19 MPG vehicles rather than 34 with 44 MPG vehicles would save 7350 gallons per year.

This new perspective on fuel economy has value not just for those trying to save gas. That perspective should be useful for auto manufacturers, policy makers, and consumer advocates because it clarifies that trucks and other vehicles at the low end of MPG scale are where one gets the most bang for the buck when demanding improved fuel economy.

But is the pragmatic value of this insight realized? Alas, no.

A report from the Environmental Protection Agency shows that the level of advancements in the fuel efficiency of cars are about equal to the level of advancement in the fuel efficiency of trucks. Consumer Reports, one of my favorite sources of information, still talks about fuel gains over the past two decades on a linear scale [2]. As though a 5 MPG gain means the same thing whether it is from 12 to 17 MPG or 35 to 40 MPG. Simply reporting gallons used per 12,000 miles driven would solve that problem, as Larrick and Soll argued a decade ago.

Small perspective changes can have big effects, it just takes a long time.

References

[1] Larrick, R. P., & Soll, J. B. (2008). The MPG illusion. Science, 320(5883), 1593-1594.

[2] Plungis, J. (2018). Going the distance: The race to improve fuel economy. Consumer Reports, April, 2018, 11-18

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