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A Simple Way to Spark Creativity

Assume the role of a stereotypical imaginative genius, and watch what happens.
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(Photo: stanzim/Flickr)

(Photo: stanzim/Flickr)

If you're feeling creatively stifled, "engage in stereotypical thinking" may be the last piece of advice you would expect. Stereotypes, being well-defined and rigid, are arguably the enemy of creative thinking.

Due to their simplicity and familiarity, however, pretty much anyone can conjure them up easily. And if you can step into the right one, it can open your blocked creative channel.

That's the conclusion of new research, which finds imagining yourself as a stereotypically creative person improves one's performance on a standard test of creative thinking.

Creativity is "best described ... as a malleable product of context and perspective," write University of Maryland researchers Denis Dumas and Kevin Dunbar. Their findings, published in the online journal PLoS One, have practical implications for our test-driven educational system.

Kids may be as creative as ever, but the self-image they are encouraged to adopt at school may be blocking their potential.

The "stereotype effect" is a much-studied psychological phenomenon. Research has shown that identifying with a stereotype can either help or hinder our performance on a variety of tasks.

One line of research has found females who buys into the notion that women are bad at math score lower on that subject. But another found wearing a white garment described as a "lab coat" improved performance on tests requiring close and sustained attention.

To determine if creativity can be similarly impacted by this form of identification, Dumas and Dunbar conducted two experiments.

he first featured 96 undergraduates at a large American university, a mix of biology, physics, art, and theater majors. Approximately one-third were asked to "imagine that you are an eccentric poet." Another third were told to "imagine that you are a rigid librarian," while the final third received no stereotype-related instruction. (The researchers insist they do not consider librarians rigid or inflexible, but a pilot test found that cliche was "highly salient" to students.)

All participants then completed the Alternative Uses Task, in which they were given the names of 10 commonplace objects (such as a book, fork, shovel, and trumpet) and asked to come up with as many "original uses" as they could for each.

In terms of both "fluency" (the total number of uses they named for each object) and "originality" (measured by their use of words that were far removed from the object's obvious purpose), those who assumed the persona of "eccentric poet" scored highest. Those who took on the role of "rigid librarian" scored lowest, while participants who were not given a stereotype placed in the middle.

The second experiment, featuring 105 undergraduates, was similarly structured, except that each participant was asked to take on the "eccentric poet" persona for five of the objects, and the "rigid librarian" for the other five.

The participants came up with significantly more uses when thinking of themselves as the poet, and their level of imagination was also higher under those conditions. "Both their fluency and originality were significantly enhanced" by imagining themselves as the poet, the researchers report.

The results suggest the much-lamented decline in creativity noted over the past 20 years may in fact reflect the self-concepts assumed by students. "In any system that places an emphasis on test scores," Dumas and Dunbar write, "test-takers may feel compelled to adopt a rigid perspective when performing a creative task."

In other words, kids may be as creative as ever, but the self-image they are encouraged to adopt at school (basically, that of a fact-regurgitating machine) may be blocking their creative potential.

For educators, this is something to seriously consider. For everyone else, these results suggest viewing ourselves as dull and uninspired can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

To paraphrase Steve Jobs, if we think different about ourselves, perhaps we can start to think differently.


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.