Creativity for the Cautious

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The mysterious connection between need for structure and creativity.

Do you like surprises? If you do, it may surprise you to learn that a lot of other people don’t.

Our natural ability (or lack thereof) to deal with surprising situations and the uncertainty they generate may have an important role to play in our creativity.

Psychologists call our natural way of dealing with uncertainty ‘personal need for structure’. Some people have a greater desire to know what is coming next, what to expect; whereas other people don’t mind being surprised.

Take a couple of social situations as examples. Imagine you go to a restaurant with your partner, where you are met by the maitre d’ and sat down, brought your menus, given the wine list and so on.

Throughout the evening the social structure of the situation is just like every other time you’ve visited a restaurant. The rituals of ordering food and drink; the pretending to ignore other diners, but secretly checking them out; then, when the bill arrives, briefly considering doing a runner before laying down the plastic.

The rituals are comforting.

But let’s imagine we mess with this situation. Say you walk into the restaurant and there’s no maitre d’, you sit down wherever you can fit in. Then you are brought random foods and drinks that you didn’t choose and the people sitting next to you don’t ignore you, but start up conversations like you were old friends. Not only that but the waiters also sits down to eat their meals with you.

And it turns out the whole things is free, sort of: apparently everyone is coming around to your place next Saturday and expects the same treatment.

What kind of a weird restaurant has this system? Well, it’s just the rules of a dinner party transported to a restaurant, but because the rules are out of place they are surprising.

The point is that those with a high personal need for structure would find the dinner-party-style restaurant highly uncomfortable. You don’t know what to expect because the rules have all been changed and no one told you. Other people, though, don’t mind these sorts of things so much: they are more likely to take it in their stride.

The good news for those who like surprises is that psychologists have found that they are generally more creative. Something about this ability to roll with the uncertainty inherent in some situations seems to make people’s minds more open to new possibilities. It seems uncertainty breeds creativity.

A recent study, though, has added an important nuance and gives creative hope to those of us who don’t like surprises.

In their study Rietzschel et al. (2010) tested both people’s need for structure and their fear of being wrong. They thought that both would have an effect on creative performance. Participants were given a series of tests of creativity which included being asked to draw an alien. Those aliens which looked least like a mammal were judged most creative.

The researchers found that when participants weren’t afraid of being wrong then their need for structure didn’t stop them being creative. The problems came when people’s anxieties destroyed their ability to be creative.

Those of us who need structure can still be highly creative as long as we don’t allow our fears to get the better of us. The key is to find ways to reduce the fear of being wrong and give ourselves time to discover all the possibilities our minds have to offer.

Image credit: Patrick Hoesly

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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: 5 July 2011

Text: © All rights reserved.

Images: Creative Commons License