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Fresh Approaches to Sparking Creativity

Newly published research describes two innovative methods to inspire creativity: Compare and contrast different cultures, or think of yourself as a 7-year-old.
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"All children are artists,” Pablo Picasso once observed. “The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” Pablo’s puzzle, which feels increasingly urgent as creativity is linked to both psychological well-being and economic competiveness, is addressed in two new papers that propose simple catalysts to imaginative thinking.

One study finds exploring contrasts and commonalities between cultures helps unlock creativity — news that would not surprise Picasso, who was strongly influenced by African art. The second suggests seeding the imagination is as simple as allowing yourself to think like a 7-year-old.

The research on multiculturalism and creativity was conducted by two scholars from Singapore and published in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology. Lead author Angela Ka-yee Leung of Singapore Management University describes five studies that show “multicultural experiences can provide a valuable cognitive resource for creative thinking.”

In one study, 65 American college students, all of European ancestry, participated in two creativity tests. Specifically, they read a summary of the Cinderella story and wrote a new version of it for Turkish children. They were given a few facts about Turkey and the everyday life of its citizens and were instructed to “use their wildest imagination.”

The participants were divided into five groups, the first of which began the assignment with no advance preparation. The other four viewed an approximately 45-minute presentation including still photos, music videos and movie trailers.

One group saw material culled from contemporary American culture, including architecture, scenery, apparel and cuisine; the second watched similar material reflecting Chinese culture. The third was exposed to both Chinese and American cultures, with characteristic images from both shown back to back. The fourth viewed images of Chinese-American culture, including foods such as rice burgers that combine elements from both traditions.

Their stories were judged by independent coders who assessed their creative content. Those written by students who saw images of both cultures, as well as those exposed to fusion culture, were significantly more creative than those written by the control group. Exposure simply to American or Chinese culture did not have the same effect.

The students were brought back into the lab five to seven days later and asked to perform a different creative experiment. Once again, those in the dual cultures and fusion culture groups scored highest, suggesting the effect of the multicultural exposure did not wear off rapidly.

The results suggest exposure to multiculturalism enhances “creativity-supporting cognitive skills, such as a spontaneous tendency to sample ideas from divergent sources and to attempt creative integration of seemingly unconnected ideas,” the researchers write.

They go on to note that this positive relationship is significantly weakened “in situations where individuals crave firm answers or are preoccupied with mortality concerns.” Of course, neither of those mindsets provide a particularly fertile environment for creativity in any case.

In the second paper, published in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts, psychologists Darya Zabelina and Michael Robinson of North Dakota State University describe a study featuring 76 undergraduates. The students were asked to imagine that school was canceled for the day and instructed to write detailed, specific descriptions of what they would think, feel and do in such a situation.

For half the participants, the phrase “You are seven years old” was added to their instructions. All their responses were assessed using a version of the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking.

“Individuals randomly assigned to the mindset condition involving childlike thinking subsequently exhibited higher levels of creative originality than did those in the control condition,” the researchers report. They add that their findings indicate “it is possible to recapture the spirit of play and exploration characteristic of childlike thinking.”

Looking at practical applications, the researchers suggest games and “guided imagery exercises designed to facilitate a childlike mindset” could help foster originality in both the classroom and the workplace. “Our results reveal that even very short-term interventions designed to focus individuals on spontaneous thinking and play are likely to be effective in fostering creative originality,” they write.

Anyone for a quick round of Duck Duck Goose?

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