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Being Creative

YAPP (Yet Another PsyBlog Post) …

This time about being creative.

Apart from the discussion on different or unusual thinking styles (for the person themselves) to enhance creativity, the biggest “take-away” for me from the post was the exhortation to simply remind people that they are to be creative (say, in a particular situation), and this simple reminder will give them permission (so to speak) to be creative.  This is, thus, rather important in a business setting, because in many (if not most) instances, people are told, either explicitly or implicitly, to just follow the rules or procedures and do what has been done before, rather than being allowed to express some creativity in order to solve a problem or improve the situation at hand.

The relevant paragraph is:

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).

Anyway, the full article is below, and please consider buying Jeremy’s e-book “How To Be Creative” (see ad at the bottom of the article).  I bought it – it is a great little read.

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, how do you encourage creativity in yourself and in others? I discuss this question of how to be creative in my recent ebook on creativity. There I describe six principles, based on psychological research, that can be used to understand and increase creativity.

But, 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?!”

Along with the techniques I suggest in my ebook, 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 (I discuss this balance between a wandering and focused mind in principle six of my ebook).

Image credit: gfpeck

How to Be Creative

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Why Concrete Language Communicates Truth

Another pertinent post from PsyBlog, this time about communicating (mostly writing) effectively. Particularly relevant for consultants, but applicable for all employment in all fields. Click on the header below to go to the original article.

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Speak and write using unambiguous language and people will believe you.

I’ve just deleted a rather abstract introduction I wrote to this article about truth. The reason? I noticed I wasn’t taking the excellent advice offered in a recent article published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. That advice is simple: if you want people to believe you, speak and write concrete.

There are all sorts of ways language can communicate truth. Here are some solid facts for you:

  • People usually judge that more details mean someone is telling us the truth,
  • We find stories that are more vivid to be more true,
  • We even think more raw facts make unlikely events more likely.

But all these involve adding extra details or colour. What if we don’t have any more details? What if we want to bump up the believability without adding to the fact-count?

Just going more concrete can be enough according to a recent study by Hansen and Wanke (2010). Compare these two sentences:

  1. Hamburg is the European record holder concerning the number of bridges.
  2. In Hamburg, one can count the highest number of bridges in Europe.

Although these two sentences seem to have exactly the same meaning, people rate the second as more true than the first. It’s not because there’s more detail in the second—there isn’t. It’s because it doesn’t beat around the bush, it conjures a simple, unambiguous and compelling image: you counting bridges.

Abstract words are handy for talking conceptually but they leave a lot of wiggle-room. Concrete words refer to something in the real world and they refer to it precisely. Vanilla ice-cream is specific while dessert could refer to anything sweet eaten after a main meal.

Verbs as well as nouns can be more or less abstract. Verbs like ‘count’ and ‘write’ are solid, concrete and unambiguous, while verbs like ‘help’ and ‘insult’ are open to some interpretation. Right at the far abstract end of the spectrum are verbs like ‘love’ and ‘hate’; they leave a lot of room for interpretation.

Even a verb’s tense can affect its perceived concreteness. The passive tense is usually thought more abstract, because it doesn’t refer to the actor by name. Perhaps that’s partly why fledgling writers are often told to write in the active tense: to the reader it will seem more true.

Hansen and Wanke give three reasons why concreteness suggests truth:

  1. Our minds process concrete statements more quickly, and we automatically associate quick and easy with true (check out these studies on the power of simplicity).
  2. We can create mental pictures of concrete statements more easily. When something is easier to picture, it’s easier to recall, so seems more true.
  3. Also, when something is more easily pictured it seems more plausible, so it’s more readily believed.

So, speak and write solidly and unambiguously and people will think it’s more true. I can’t say it any clearer than that.

Image credit: Lee Huynh

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