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A Surprising Link Between Creativity and False Memories

Research suggests that creative thinking can also lead to memory errors.

Key points

  • Creativity involves convergent and divergent thinking.
  • Convergent creative thinking is positively related to memory errors, and the quality of divergent thinking is not related to memory errors.
  • Research on creativity suggests that the people who come up with the best creative ideas tend to come up with the most ideas.
iStock image licensed to Art Markman
Source: iStock image licensed to Art Markman

When people generate creative ideas, there are several different things they must do. One critical task is to describe problems in several different ways to come up with different solutions. This aspect of creativity is called divergent thinking. A task often used to measure divergent thinking in psychology studies is the alternative uses test. People are given an everyday object like a brick or a notebook and are asked to generate as many different uses as possible. For example, a brick could be used as a paperweight or as something to step on to grasp an object just out of reach.

A second is to find common ground among a variety of different aspects of a problem. This aspect of creativity is called convergent thinking. If you have to find a way to use several different ingredients in the same recipe, you’re engaging in convergent thinking. A classic task that psychologists use to measure convergent thinking is the remote associates test, in which you get three words and have to find a fourth word that relates to the other three. For example, you might see the words ball figure and popsicle. The correct answer, in this case, is stick.

Creativity is a hallmark in developing ideas that are not obvious but can be generated from the available information. An interesting question that follows from this ability is whether that also affects memory for the situation. That is, if you think about the information that is not present in a situation, does that also lead you to believe later that information was present? If so, you might misremember the initial situation.

This question was explored in a paper by Preston Thakral, Aleea Devitt, Nadia Brashier, and Daniel Schacter in a 2021 issue of the journal Cognition. They measured the tendency to remember information that was not present using the Deese-Roediger-McDermott technique. With this technique, people see lists of 12 words (like sill and pane) associated with some target word (in this case, window). Research suggests that people often misremember seeing the target word when presented only with the initial list of words, even though the target word is never presented.

The researchers had people study 8 lists in their studies, each associated with a different target word. After a brief delay, they saw a list of words and selected those they believed they had seen in the study lists. Some of the words were actually on the lists, some were the targets, and the rest were words that had not been on any of the lists.

After this memory test, participants did versions of the alternative uses test (the test of divergent creative thinking) and the remote associates test (the test of convergent creative thinking).

Of particular interest was the relationship between performance on the creativity tests and performance on the memory test.

For correct memory performance, there was a tendency for people who scored higher on the test of convergent thinking to recognize more of the words they saw than those who scored lower on the test of convergent thinking. This may be because the lists were all coherently focused around target words. As evidence, people who scored higher on the test of convergent thinking also falsely recognized that they had seen more of the target words that were never actually presented.

The test of divergent thinking (the alternate uses test) was scored in two different ways. One was to rate the ideas for their originality—this is a measure of the quality of divergent thinking. The second was to rate the degree of elaboration and detail of the ideas. This is a measure of the quantity of divergent thinking.

The quality of divergent thinking was not strongly related to the likelihood of falsely remembering the target words. Still, the quantity was related to it like that of the performance on the convergent creativity test. The difference between these measures on the divergent thinking test is that the amount of ideas relates to finding many different ways to associate an object with an environment. At the same time, quality is a bit more random.

Lots of research on creativity suggests that the people who come up with the best creative ideas are the ones who tend to come up with the most ideas. That indicates that there isn’t a special mental process that helps you come up with only good ideas. Instead, you have to find lots of possibilities.

This research is a good reminder that the way you think influences your memory. The more you tend to associate different ideas with each other, the harder it may be to remember exactly what you have seen in the past, but the more likely you are to find creative solutions to problems.

References

Thakral, P.P., Devitt, A.L., Brashier, N.M., & Schacter, D.L. (2021). Linking creativity and false memory: Common consequences of a flexible memory system. Cognition, 217.

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