Seeing Green (or, Maybe Blue) Makes You More Creative

I’ve just read a scientific article that provides evidence that green makes you more creative. The researchers conducted four different experimental studies, and in each study, people performed simple creativity tasks that could be easily scored (such as “think of unusual uses for a tin can”). Before the creativity task started, half of the subjects were “primed” with a two-second glimpse of green, and the other half saw instead white, gray, red, or blue, depending on the study.

The people who saw green were quite a bit more creative, in all four studies. In one of the four experiments, the people who saw green scored an average of over 2.0 on the creativity scale, and the people who saw white scored about 1.75. It might seem small, but for only two seconds of color that’s a pretty big effect!

Cover design with marblesI personally like this result–first, because green has been my favorite color since childhood; and second, because green is the color of the artwork in my 2013 creativity advice book, Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity…not only the marbles on the cover (at right) but also the interior artwork.

But wait a minute…didn’t Jonah Lehrer’s book Imagine report on a study showing that blue made people more creative? I went back and checked, and sure enough, here’s the 2009 study from the University of British Columbia: 600 subjects were given various cognitive tasks against different colored backgrounds, and blue backgrounds made people more creative. Hey, I like blue too (light blue is the color of my university, the University of North Carolina) so green…blue…I’m happy either way. But what’s going on here?

In the 2012 paper arguing for green, one of the studies compared green with both blue and gray. They found (again) that green resulted in the highest creativity. Blue made people even less creative than seeing gray! That sounds pretty bad for fans of blue.

So how would the 2009 authors respond? Their study left out green entirely, comparing only blue, red, and white. That would seem really odd to the authors of the 2012 paper, who make their love of green obvious from the start; they argue that green is the color of growth and fertility in a wide range of cultures around the world, concluding that “This green-growth link is undoubtedly rooted in societal learning that may itself be grounded in an evolutionarily engrained predisposition.”

Honestly, I don’t know what’s going on. Frankly, I find it implausible that you could increase creativity just by painting your walls blue, or green, or whatever. Dr. Christopher Chabris, in his brutally critical review of Lehrer’s book Imagine, notes that “research on such color priming effects is hardly settled science.” That sounds right to me.

But hey, at least we know to stay away from red, white, and gray.


Building a Better Brainstorm

Fast Company Magazine writer Anya Kamenetz published an innovative feature titled “Building a Better Brainstorm” in the February 2013 issue. She interviewed me and also several other experts on group creativity, including Bob Sutton, Gerard Puccio, and Charlan Nemeth. Then she edited and blended together our statements with quotations from our books, and then added in quotations from books by the late Alex Osborn and others. Anya wove all of these bits together to make it read as if we were all having a conversation in the same room. For example, she has me responding to a “statement” by the (long dead) Alex Osborn, saying “That’s not really true” in response to his statement in support of brainstorming.

The feature has several amusing touches. For example, she has author Jonah Lehrer “saying” that “I’m Jonah. I declined to comment for this article.”

I stand by this quotation she took from our interview:

Groups are better for problem-finding, for working on ill-defined or wicked problems, where you don’t know what a solution would look like or even if there is a solution.

A Great Review of Explaining Creativity

Today I was thrilled to read an enthusiastic review* of my book Explaining Creativity, by Professor James Kaufman and Alexander McKay. Explaining Creativity is the second edition of a book I published in 2006, as a textbook overview of the field of creativity research. Since 2006, there’s been a lot of new research, so this new book is totally different; for example, it has seven new chapters and eight new appendices.

Excerpts from the review:

Required reading for anyone interested in the topic. In a just world, Sawyer’s thorough and nuanced volume would be the best seller, not Jonah Lehrer’s pedestrian Imagine.

Sawyer’s book is easily the most thorough creativity text on the market.

We highly recommend this book.

Thank you so much for taking the time to read my book and for writing such a strong review!

*Kaufman, J. and McKay, A. (2012). Incisive and balanced: R. Keith Sawyer explains creativity. PsycCRITIQUES: APA Review of Books. August 22, 2012, Vol. 57, Release 33, Article 5

Critical Review of Imagine by Jonah Lehrer

Jonah Lehrer’s best-selling book Imagine just received a fairly critical review in the New York Times.* This follows on a famously critical review by Steven Poole in The Guardian. When I first commented on Lehrer’s book in March 2012, I was generally positive, although my overall sense was that his book didn’t really have anything new that hadn’t already appeared in other good creativity books. Poole’s scathing review was perhaps easy to dismiss, because of its bitingly sarcastic tone and also because he didn’t sufficiently ground his critique with quotations from the book. (Although I agree with his skepticism about the way Lehrer interprets neuroscience studies; see my article “The cognitive neuroscience of creativity”.) This new review by Christopher Chabris is much more sober and better supported, with specific criticisms, for example:

Lehrer makes science errors, like saying that visual information from the left eye goes to the right hemisphere (in fact, visual information from the left visual field of both eyes goes to the right hemisphere); different electrodes in an EEG do not record brain waves of different frequencies (they each record the same waves at a different location on the scalp); the Remote Associates Test is a divergent thinking test (creativity researchers agree it is a convergent thinking test).

Chabris argues that Lehrer often makes the basic undergraduate error of confusing correlation with causation. For example, Lehrer cites one study that shows that highly creative employees are also people who consult more colleagues–a correlation. Lehrer then concludes that if you increase the quantity of your office conversations, it will make you more creative (causation). Of course, it’s just as likely that creative people tend to be more talkative just because they have lots of ideas they want to share.

Chabris concludes, just as I did, that Lehrer’s book is entertaining to read, for its stories and its scientific studies. But if you want a stronger grounding in the science of creativity, you can always try my book Group Genius (one of the many books Lehrer drew his research from). And the bottom line is, I love it that Lehrer’s book is selling so well, and introducing so many people to a field of research I’ve dedicated my life to.

*Christopher Chabris, May 13 2012: “Boggle the Mind”. New York Times Sunday Book Review, page 12.

Sawyer, R. K. 2011. The cognitive neuroscience of creativity. In Creativity Research Journal.

How To Be More Creative

The journalist Jonah Lehrer is getting some incredible advance publicity for his new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works. A few weeks ago, he had an extended article about group creativity in The New Yorker. And now, in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, his article “How to be creative” took up the entire front page of Section C and another full page inside the section (March 10-11, 2012).

I had a chance to read the pre-publication version of the book last month. Lehrer does a good job of getting the science right, and, he’s an excellent writer. My only mild criticism is that there’s nothing really new in it: much of the research he describes was summarized in my 2007 book Group Genius, or in Peter Sims’ 2011 book Little Bets. But still, I’m glad to see that Lehrer is helping to disseminate what scientists know about creativity.

Let’s take a look at Lehrer’s “10 Quick Creativity Hacks” from the WSJ article.

1. When you’re in a blue room, you’re more creative.

2. You’re more creative when you’re a bit groggy.

3. People who daydream more score higher on creativity tests.

4. If you imagine yourself as a 7-year-old, you have more ideas.

5. Watching a comedy video makes you more creative just afterwards.

6. If you think the creativity puzzles come from another country or state, rather than your own local university, you’re more creative.

7. Use more generic verbs to describe your challenge.

8. If you sit next to a box (but not in it) you’re more creative.

9. Students who’ve lived abroad are more creative.

10. When people move to a bigger city they become more creative.

It’s true that these 10 tips are based in research studies. But it’s good to be a bit skeptical, because most of the studies used paper-and-pencil creativity tests that have only a limited relationship to real-world creativity. It makes me think of a study published a couple of years ago that found that if you stare at the Apple logo, you score higher on a creativity test than people who stare at the IBM logo. Does anyone really believe that simply looking at an Apple will make you more creative in any meaningful way? Not me.

Successful creativity results from hard work over a long period of time, from a systematic and deliberate process that raises the ratio of success to failure. Lehrer knows this too, of course. And his book is a pleasure to read. If you like to read about creativity, you definitely need Imagine on your shelf.

Architecture Matters

Architecture matters. A well-designed space can foster more effective learning, and can enhance creativity and collaboration. Two recent data points:

1. I just finished teaching my Spring 2011 classes. In one of them, the senior seminar for our graduating majors in educational studies, one of our books was 21st Century Learning Environments (2006). It was filled with examples of recently built schools that draw on the latest learning sciences research to build spaces that foster positive emotion, safety and security, adaptability, and collaboration. And I’ve just learned of a new book (2009) called Schools for the Future: Design Proposals from Architectural Psychology. It makes similar points: that learning environments should be learner centered, age appropriate, safe, comfortable, flexible, and equitable.

2. I’m intrigued by this idea of “architectural psychology,” and by coincidence, in last weekend’s Wall Street Journal, Jonah Lehrer* summarizes recent research on how spaces influence mental states. Just a few recent studies:

  • Sixty white-collar workers were followed at a government facility. They were randomly assigned to work in either an old building, with low ceilings and loud air conditioners, or in a new space with skylights (more natural lighting) and open cubicles (more conversation and collaboration). After 17 months of tracking these two groups, they found that the people working in the old building were more stressed.
  • In 2009, psychologists at the University of British Columbia (UBC) gave people tests in rooms with different colors: red, blue, or neutral. Test-takers in red environments were better at accuracy and attention to detail. Test-takers in blue environments were better on tasks that required imagination and creativity.
  • In 2006, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s school of management found that when people are in a room with a high ceiling, rather than a lower one, they perform better on tasks that require them to make distant associations.

I’ve spent some time studying architecture degree programs in various universities, but I haven’t yet seen a course in “architectural psychology.” I think it would be exciting to teach this research to the architects of tomorrow: particularly those who will be designing the learning environments of the future.

*Jonah Lehrer, “Building a Thinking Room.” WSJ April 30-May 1, 2011, p. C12