Nature Nurtures Creativity After Four Days of Hiking

I just read about a fascinating new study* that examined 56 people who went on an Outward Bound wilderness expedition. No electronic devices were allowed on the trips. Of the 56 people, 24 took a creativity test before they left for the trip. The other 32 took the test out in the wilderness, on the fourth day of the trip…after four days disconnected from the grid. These 32 people scored 50% higher on the creativity test than the 24 people who hadn’t yet started their trip! The intriguing implication is that those four days enhanced creativity.

The test they used was the Remote Associates Test (RAT). The way it works is that you’re given three words, and your task is to identify a fourth “target word” that is related to all three of those words. For example, an answer to SAME/TENNIS/HEAD would be MATCH (because a match is the same, tennis match, and match head). The test was designed back in the 1960s by Professor Sarnoff Mednick. Mednick designed each triplet so that all three words are related to the target word in a different way; so, to solve the task, your mind has to activate very different conceptual clusters. Hence the name “remote associates.” Mednick argued that people who were better at making these remote associations would be more likely to come up with surprising new ideas.

The test was not timed; you could take as long as you wanted. After four days in the wilderness, the average score was 6.08 triplets (out of ten) were solved. The people who hadn’t left yet scored an average of 4.14 out of ten. That’s a pretty big difference! Kudos to the researchers for getting such strong findings.

There’s a lot we don’t know yet (as the researchers point out).

  1. We don’t know if the higher scores are due to spending time in nature, or are due to simply getting away from work and electronic devices, and taking time off. Psychologists have known for years that vacation enhances creativity, that idle time is a necessary part of the creative process, and that people who work all the time are not going to be at their peak creative potential.
  2. Because the test wasn’t timed, it could be that the people who hadn’t left yet were impatient and were rushing to get everything ready, while the people who took the test out in the wilderness had a lot more time on their hands. Maybe the effects are simply due to the in-hike group spending more time on the test.
  3. The RAT correlates very highly with measures of verbal intelligence, suggesting that it may be more of a verbal skills test than a creativity test per se. (The researchers controlled for age, because older people have higher verbal abilities.)
  4. The RAT requires a person to identify the one correct answer, whereas in many cases, creativity is associated with being able to come up with a broad variety of different answers–what’s known as divergent thinking.
  5. In a large percentage of historical cases, creative insights result from associations of closely related material, not from extremely remote associations. So remote association is clearly not the same thing as creativity, although it seems to be related.

You can learn more about the research behind these points on pages 44 to 46 of Explaining Creativity.

*Atchley RA, Strayer DL, Atchley P (2012) Creativity in the Wild: Improving Creative Reasoning through Immersion in Natural Settings. PLoS ONE 7(12): e51474. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0051474


Rx for Creativity: Take Friday Off

Sunday’s New York Times has a fascinating article* by Jason Fried, the co-founder and CEO of software company 37signals. He says that since he reduced everyone’s hours at his company, they’ve all gotten way more creative. Check out what he’s done:

  • From May through October, they switch to a four-day workweek. The result? According to Fried, better work gets done in four days than used to get done in five.
  • In June, every employee gets to work on whatever they want. They put their scheduled work project on hold, and explore ways to improve existing products and new product ideas. In July, everyone shares their ideas on “Pitchday.” Fried reports that this resulted in a burst of creativity, it was “ultraproductive,” and it was a huge morale booster.

What Fried’s done at 37signals is actually a fairly common technique at super-innovative companies. Google, for example, gives its employees one day every week to work on wild and crazy new ideas of their own choosing. That “20 percent time” is where new product offerings emerge, like gmail. W. L. Gore (maker of Gore-Tex waterproof fabric) gives everyone 10 percent of each week for creative time. And the whole idea started way back in the 1940s and 1950s at 3M, which to this day has “15 percent” time for creativity.

So here’s a suggestion for 37signals: Since four days a week works so well from May through October, why not extend the policy for all twelve months?

*Fried, Jason. “Be more productive. Take time off.” New York Times, Sunday, August 19, 2012.