Get Creative: 7 More Psychological Techniques

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Trying to make connections? Here are seven more research-based techniques to increase creativity.

“Creativity can solve almost any problem. The creative act, the defeat of habit by originality overcomes everything.” ~George Lois

Following on from a previous article on how to be creative, which had a tremendous response, here are another 7 techniques for breaking through a creative block.

1. Counterfactual mindset

Conjuring up what might have been gives a powerful boost to creativity.

Markman et al. (2007) found that using counterfactuals (what might have happened but didn’t) sometimes doubled people’s creativity. But counterfactuals work best if they are tailored to the target problem:

  • Analytical problems are best tackled with a subtractive mind-set: thinking about what could have been taken away from the situation.
  • Expansive problems benefited most from an additive counterfactual mind-set: thinking about what could have been added to the situation.

2. Two problems are better than one

People solve many problems analogically: by recalling a similar old one and applying the same, or similar solution. Unfortunately studies have found that people are poor at recalling similar problems they’ve already solved.

In a counter-intuitive study, however, Kurtz and Lowenstein (2007) found that having two problems rather than one made it more likely that participants would recall problems they’d solved before, which helped them solve the current problem.

So don’t avoid complications, gather them all up; they may well help jog your memory.

3. Generic verbs

Another boost for analogical thinking can be had from writing down the problem, then changing the problem-specific verbs to more generic ones.

What Clement et al. (1994) discovered when they tested this method was that analogical leaps are easier when problems were described in looser, more generic terms. In this study performance increased by more than 100% in some tasks.

This is just one of a number of techniques which encourage  focus on the gist of the problem rather than its specific details.

4. Synonyms and category taxonomies

Just like changing the verbs, re-encoding the problem using synonyms and category taxonomies can help.

This means analysing the type of problem and coming up with different ways of representing it. Lowenstein (2009; PDF) emphasises the importance of accessing the underlying structure of the problem in order to work out a solution.

5. Fight! Fight! Fight!

We tend to think that when people are arguing, they become more narrow-minded and rigid and consequently less creative.

But, according to research by Dreu and Nijstad (2008), the reverse may actually be true. Across four experiments they found that when in conflict people engaged more with a problem and generated more original ways of arguing.

Being in social conflict seems to give people an intense motivated focus. So, to get creative, start a fight.

6. Think love not sex

Forster et al. (2009) found that when experimental participants were primed with thoughts of love they became more creative, but when primed with carnal desire they became less creative (although more analytical).

While it certainly isn’t the first time that love has been identified as a creative stimulus, psychologists have suggested a particular cognitive mechanism.

Love cues us with thoughts of the long-term, hence our minds zoom out and we reason more abstractly and analogically. Sex meanwhile cues the present, leading to a concrete analytical processing style. For creativity, abstraction and analogy are preferred.

7. Stop daydreaming

To increase creativity we’re always hearing about the benefits of daydreaming for incubating ideas. It’s a nice idea that all the work is going on under the hood with no effort from us. But you’ll notice that all the methods covered here are active rather than passive.

That’s because the research generally finds only very small benefits for periods of incubation or unconscious thought (Zhong et al., 2009). The problem with unconscious creativity is that it tends to remain unconscious, so we never find out about it, even if it exists.

The benefit of incubating or waiting may only be that it gives us time to forget all our initial bad ideas, to make way for better ones. Moreover, incubating only works if the unconscious already has lots of information to incubate, in other words if you’ve already done a lot of work on the problem.

So: stop daydreaming and start doing!

Move abroad and learn another language

If all that fails, including the 7 techniques from the previous article, then I’ve got one radical, bonus suggestion: move to another country and learn another language. Maddux and Galinsky (2009) found that people who had lived abroad performed better on a range of creative tasks.

In an experimental test of this idea, Maddux et al. (2010) asked participants to recall multicultural learning experiences and found that this made people more flexible in their thinking and better able to make creative connections.

This only worked when people had actually lived abroad, not when they just imagined it.

Image credits: Poportis & Erica Marshall

About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 22 June 2010

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