Why Are People More Creative in a Crisis?

Here are seven possible reasons.

Posted Mar 26, 2020

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It's far too early to be trying to find any silver lining in coronavirus. However, you may have noticed that as we're facing the crisis, there has been an uptick in creative problem-solving. We're seeing (imperfect) creative solutions from essentially every corner, including from:

  • The medical community (like trying to use one ventilator for more than one patient, or recruiting therapy dogs to support our healthcare workers during long shifts on the frontlines)
  • Governments and policymakers across the world
  • Data scientists
  • The business community
  • Professors who are trying to give their students emotional support as well as teach course material
  • Folks with "maker" skills, like those who are 3D printing medical parts that are in short supply
  • Ordinary moms and dads who are shepherding their kids through this

If you're wondering about the psychology behind this surge in creativity, here are some reasons why people are more creative in a crisis.

1. The urgent and the important are better aligned in a crisis.

In regular working life, a huge problem is that the urgent and the important are often very out of sync. Typically, the most potentially impactful work we could be doing, such as focusing on creativity or innovation, or disaster planning (*cough cough*), doesn't have a firm deadline.

Tasks with short deadlines tend to be those that are relatively uncomplicated, whereas very impactful work tends to be more complex, novel, and emotionally and intellectually challenging. Research shows that people will choose to do tasks with short deadlines over those with longer deadlines, even when the tasks with longer deadlines are just as easy and will yield objectively higher rewards.

In a crisis, the urgent and the important are much more clearly aligned.

2. In a crisis, people think about how their skills and resources could be applied to the problem.

When we're all facing a collective crisis like COVID-19, the problem to be solved is very well-defined. The variable factor then is the skills and knowledge individuals can bring to bear on that. Everyone is figuring out that they have some knowledge, skills, connections, or other resources to offer. For example, folks who are long-term homeschoolers or who always work from home are providing tips, resources, and support for those who are new to it.

Everyone is asking themselves, "How can my skills, resources, and knowledge help in this crisis?" And, people are realizing they have skills and knowledge that are helpful to others that they'd perhaps underestimated. Sharing any knowledge we have also feels more urgent and like a moral imperative.

3. Fear is focusing and energizing, and creativity is a defense against feeling helpless.

An imminent threat is energizing and focusing. Our evolved, acute response to danger is that we get more physical energy as part of our fight, flight, freeze response. If you have nowhere to channel that extra energy, it can just bubble around unpleasantly as anxiety. And, feelings of helplessness can turn into depression. However, if you channel that extra energy into a fight response (fighting with your brain, technical skills, and emotional skills, not your fists), then the crisis-related fear you feel is experienced as less unpleasant. If you choose to respond with helplessness (like if, due only to anxiety, you cash out all your retirement savings after a big drop in the market), your fear will feel more unpleasant.

4. The psychological barriers that stop people from being creative fade into the background during a crisis. 

Creativity often involves breaking some rules or perceived rules. Under the general rubric of rules, I'm also including social norms and conventions that lead to us staying in our lane and doing things the way we've always done them. In a crisis, there is a sense that the normal rules don't apply. We see evidence of this everywhere. Hierarchies break down as we see the value of certain resources skyrocket and providers with those capabilities get direct access to power, like how companies who can supply masks are instantly invited to directly connect with a governor's office. New partnerships and collaborations start quickly, with less concern for protecting intellectual property. We also see bureaucratic rules being relaxed, like allowances for telemedicine, fast-tracking of relicensing for recently retired health care workers, and even early graduation for med students so they can start working. 

When people see the rules are off, they feel freer to be creative. This can include social norms we feel constrained by, such as those related to reaching out to others, how we use social media or other technology, who we collaborate with, or how we spend our time. For instance, you might feel less inhibited about reaching out to someone you've lost touch with or last had an awkward interaction with.

5. When our ingrained habits (ways of doing things) are disrupted, creativity ensues.

This point is really an extension of the last one, but it's a particularly important example of that general principle.

Let's say you typically teach a class in-person but now you are teaching it online. This change in format, plus the current situation is likely to cause you to reevaluate how you teach. You may have to find new ways to replicate what you did in in-person classes, but you're also free to make other changes, perhaps including those you've wanted to make for a long time but felt inhibited to make or just haven't gotten around to. Using new tools may also offer opportunities to try new methods e.g., using the advanced technological features of online collaboration tools.

Disruption in your habits is also why you might be cooking more creatively etc. Disruption in existing habits helps us get around to things we've wanted to do.

6. Some of the problems to be solved are novel.

One of the reasons we're seeing creativity now is that some of the problems we're currently facing are novel. We haven't needed to solve them before.

In creativity research, one of the most common ways of measuring creativity is through what are known as alternative uses tests. Study participants are asked to brainstorm as many diverse uses for a common object as they can think of, such as asking, "What are some creative uses for a brick?"

When novel problems come up, we see new uses for our familiar resources and skills.

7. Empathy can spur creativity.

Sometimes what gets in the way of helping others is the cognitive fallacy known as "belief in a just world," such as we believe if people are experiencing financial hardship or struggling in some way, it must be their own fault. When people are impacted by COVID-19, there is less sense that those who are being impacted are struggling because they must have flaws or weaknesses. Therefore it's psychologically easier for governments, banks, companies, and anyone else to make accommodations and to come up with creative solutions to help. They're not as hindered in their empathy by their belief in a just world.

Which of these seven mechanisms of creativity are you noticing in yourself?  Which are you in noticing in your loved ones? Your colleagues? Your community?