Creativity and Challenge

New research from the University of Amsterdam* shows that when people encounter an obstacle, it causes them to stop using routine, automatic thought, and to step back and adopt a more global, big picture approach, to try to figure out a way around the obstacle. That might not be so surprising; but the researchers also found two related results that are really fascinating.

First, the mind’s shift to a big picture approach lingered even after the problem was done. Here’s the experiment: Participants were given a maze to solve, and for half of them, the most obvious path through the maze was blocked. After finishing the maze, both groups were given 10 Remote Associates Test (RAT) triplets to solve–a traditional measure of creative ability. The people who had the blocked maze solved, on average, 4.75 of the triplets; the people whose maze was not blocked solved only 2.83!

This study is consistent with my own interviews with artists and arts educators, who say that students learn much more effectively when the teacher introduces constraints, and designs tasks so that students will have difficulty, thus forcing them out of their usual way of thinking. 

The second finding is that the first finding only holds true for people who are “low in volatility,” and not for people who are “high in volatility.” High volatility people are “inclined to disengage prematurely from ongoing activities” whereas the low volatility people are more likely to stick with it and finish. So basically, you don’t get any benefit from the obstacle if you’re one of the high volatility people. If you’ve read this far in my blog post, I’m guessing you are low volatility!

*Marguc et al., 2011, Stepping back to see the big picture: When obstacles elicit global processing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 101, No. 5, pp. 883-901.

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