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Constraints Can Be a Catalyst for Creativity

The Green Eggs and Ham hypothesis is confirmed.

By Tom Jacobs


Dr. Seuss. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

To a writer, there’s nothing scarier than a blank piece of paper. Ditto a blank canvas to an artist, or a blank computer screen to anyone trying to create something digitally. The possibilities before you are endless, which can be more enervating than exhilarating. Where, after all, do you begin?

Newly published research suggests an answer that worked for artists as disparate as Igor Stravinsky and Dr. Seuss: Saddle yourself with some restrictions. Or allow someone else to make some for you.

“Constraints may turn out to be liberating,” Rider University psychologist Catrinel Haught-Tromp writes in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts. In two studies, she found students produced more creative writing samples when they were forced to abide by certain arbitrary rules.

What’s more, students continued to work at that higher level of imagination even after the restrictions were lifted. Once the challenge of working around certain restrictions has sparked one’s creativity, it appears to stay stimulated, at least for a time.

Haught-Tromp refers to this as the Green Eggs and Ham hypothesis, named after the famous Dr. Seuss book that came about as a result of a particular provocation. Writer/illustrator Theodore Geisel was given a challenge by his publisher: Write a book small children will love using no more than 50 words (which could be repeated as often as needed). The result became a classic.

“Participants generated more creative rhymes when they had to work with the externally imposed constraint of a given noun.”

To test it, she devised a study in which 64 undergraduates were asked to create a series of two-line rhymes that conveyed a greeting-card-friendly message, such as “happy birthday,” “thank you,” or “I love you.”

On half of the trials, they were further instructed to include in their message one of eight specific words: shirt, vest, dog, frog, doll, kite, drum, and harp. Some of the participants completed those rhymes first, followed by the ones that lacked this limitation; for the others, the order was reversed.

According to three independent judges, “participants generated more creative rhymes when they had to work with the externally imposed constraint of a given noun.” Moreover, even after that restriction was removed, they did more creative work than their fellow students who completed the unrestricted rhymes right off the bat.

The second study, featuring 46 undergraduates, was similarly structured, except the participants created their own restrictions. Specifically, they were asked to write down “the first four concrete nouns that came to their mind,” after which they were instructed to “incorporate each of the four nouns in a creative rhyme in response to the prompts.”

The results were consistent with the first study: The students came up with more creative rhymes when forced to use certain words, and they continued to work at an elevated level of imagination when they moved on to creating rhymes without restrictions.

Why is this approach effective? Working with constraints “allows a deeper exploration of fewer alternatives,” Haught-Tromp explains. They “limit the overwhelming number of available choices to a manageable subset,” allowing us to “explore less familiar paths, to diverge in previously unknown directions.”

So if your creativity is blocked, this counterintuitive method can be surprisingly liberating. As Dr. Seuss might put it:

If you’re someone who writes or paints
Don’t be afraid to try constraints!