Unusual Thinking Styles Increase Creativity

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Psychological research reveals how rational versus intuitive thinking can inspire new ideas.

The idea of creativity is wonderful: that a spark of inspiration can eventually bring something new and useful into the world, perhaps even something beautiful. Something, as it were, from nothing.

That spark may only be the start of a journey towards the finished article or idea, but it is still a wonderful moment. Without the initial spark there will be no journey. It’s no exaggeration to say that our ability to be creative sits at the heart of our achievements as a species.

Do incentives work?

So, what methods do people naturally use to encourage creativity? In the creative industries the usual method is money, or some other related incentive. So, can incentives encourage people to be creative?

According to the research, they can, but crucially these incentives need to emphasise that creativity is the goal (Eisenberger & Shanock, 2003). Studies find that if people are given an incentive for just completing a task, it doesn’t increase their creativity (Amabile et al., 1986). In fact, incentives linked to task completion (rather than creativity) can reduce creativity.

Another way of encouraging creativity is simply to be reminded that creativity is a goal. It seems too simple to be true, but research has found that just telling people to ‘be creative’ increases their creativity (e.g. Chen et al., 2005).

The theory is that this works because people often don’t realise they’re supposed to be looking for creative solutions. This is just as true in the real world as it is in psychology experiments. We get so wrapped up in deadlines, clients, costs and all the rest that it’s easy to forget to search for creative solutions.

People need to be told that creativity is a goal. Unlike children, adults need to be reminded about the importance of creativity. Perhaps it’s because so much of everyday life encourages conformity and repeating the same things you did before. Doing something different needs a special effort.

Rational versus intuitive thinking

However telling someone to ‘be creative’ is a bit like telling them to ‘be more clever’ or ‘be more observant’. We want to shout: “Yes, but how?!”

Another insight comes from a new study on stimulating creativity. This suggests one solution may lie in using an unusual thinking style—unusual, that is, to you (Dane et al., 2011). Let me explain…

When trying to solve problems that need creative solutions, broadly people have been found to approach them in one of two ways:

  1. Rationally: by using systematic patterns of thought. This involves relying on specific things you’ve learnt in the past, thinking concretely and ignoring gut instincts.
  2. Intuitively: by setting the mind free to explore associations. This involves working completely on first impressions and whatever comes to mind while ignoring what you’ve learnt in the past.

The researchers wondered if people’s creativity could be increased by encouraging them to use the pattern of thinking that was most unusual to them. So, those people who naturally preferred to approach creative problems rationally, were asked to think intuitively. And the intuitive group was asked to think rationally for a change.

Participants were given a real-world problem to solve: helping a local business expand. The results were evaluated by managers from the company involved. When they looked at the results, the manipulation had worked: people were more creative when they used the thinking style that was most unusual for them.

One of the reasons this may work is that consciously adopting a different strategy stops your mind going down the same well-travelled paths. We all have habitual ways of approaching problems and while habits are sometimes useful, they can also produce the same results over and over again.

A limitation of this study is that it only looked at the generation of new ideas. This tends to occur mostly at the start of the creative process. So once ideas have been generated and a more analytical mindset is required, these techniques may not work so well.

Image credit: gfpeck

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: 3 May 2011

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