Over the past few years, Pacific Standard has reported on a series of studies that have identified surprising ways to stimulate creativity—everything from dim lighting to sarcasm. One of the oddest, from 2012, reported that even brief exposure to the color green—which we instinctively associate with growth and fecundity—increases innovative thinking.
Such studies cry out for additional confirmation, and now a team from the United Kingdom has provided just that. It reports a group of university students displayed more visual creativity when they had a clear view of the natural world—or, alternatively, simply worked on green paper.
"The results have clear practical implications in demonstrating that classroom features can enhance creativity among students," writes a research team led by Sylvie Studente of Regent's University–London.
The results suggest there are simple ways to manipulate a classroom environment to boost students' innovation.
Unlike the 2012 study, it found improvements only in visual creativity, not the verbal variety. So if you're writing a screenplay, green paper may not help—but if you're designing sets for the movie, it's definitely worth a try.
The study, published in the journal Thinking Skills and Creativity, featured 108 business students at a British university who took two creativity tests. They were randomly assigned to sit in either a classroom "surrounded by live plants," with open blinds providing a view of the natural world, or one where there were no plants and the blinds were drawn. Approximately half of those in the latter condition used green paper for the task.
To measure verbal creativity, they completed the Alternative Uses Task, in which they were asked to "Name all the uses you can think of for a brick." To measure visual creativity, they completed the Thirty Circles Test, in which they were given a sheet of paper containing 30 circles and instructed to incorporate as many of them as possible into a drawing.
Surprisingly, those in the closed-off classroom scored higher on two measures of verbal creativity than those in the "green" conditions, and did just as well on the third measure ("cleverness").
However, those exposed to plant life, as well as those who worked on green paper, scored higher on visual creativity than those in the blinds-drawn, white-paper group. (The assessment was done by three independent evaluators, who looked at eight dimensions of creativity.) "There was no statistically relevant difference between the plants and green-paper condition," the researchers write.
In retrospect, these mixed results aren't entirely surprising, given that "there are significant differences in the cognitive processing of visual and verbal information," the researchers note. The key takeaway is that green provided a creative catalyst, at least in one important domain.
The results suggest there are simple ways to manipulate a classroom environment to boost students' innovation—even in inner-city schools, where, as far as the kids are concerned, the natural world is a distant rumor.
Yes, being enveloped by nature is stimulating—but so is the subtle hint conveyed by its dominant hue.
Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.