We are more creative than we think

The Nobel prize winner Linus Pauling used to say “I think I think harder, think more than other people do” to explain his remarkable creative performances. And he was probably right: not everyone could have unravelled the mystery of how atoms are arranged and bounded together (Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1954). Yet, does it mean that creativity isn’t within everyone’s reach? What is creativity really and how can we master it?

This post is also available in Dutch.

Let’s think about creative thinking

We don’t need to be famous scientists to be creative—everyone can—it is just about having the right mind set. Creativity, thus, doesn’t come for free but it’s something we all have to work for. It is about how much you believe in your own ideas and how far you’re ready to go for it: the only limit is yourself.  

To dive into more concrete theory, creativity is defined as the generation of ideas, insights, or solutions that are novel and useful for a given situation or problem.

In 2015, B. J. Lucas and L. F. Nordgren designed a series of experiments to understand why we tend to minimise our creativity. Let’s have a closer look at their work.

Are you aware of your creativity?

Subjects were asked to generate new ideas in brainstorming tasks during a limited period of time (e.g. “generate as many original ideas for things to eat or drink at a Thanksgiving dinner as you can”). Then, they were asked to estimate the quantity of other ideas they would have expressed during an additional period. Finally, they continued the task for another 10 minutes, giving more ideas about the same topic. The results showed that subjects clearly underestimated their performance at food brainstorming, no matter if they were cooking experts or not! 

Interestingly, the quality and originality of answers even improved during the extra time compared to the first attempt. Thus, they actually got more creative at the end of the task!

Creative mode ON/OFF

In a second study, they determined why people often underestimate their own creativity. Is it specific to creative work or related to other, more general factors? Different groups of participants were tested either on highly creative tasks (e.g.: See this picture and come up with as many advertising slogans as you can) or on more logical tasks (e.g.: math problem-solving). Subjects were significantly better at estimating how many more math problems they could solve compared to generating advertising slogans. To explain why this undervaluation effect is specific to the creative mode, the researchers proposed that creative thoughts can be overwhelming and discouraging because of the constant flow of information going back and forth between draft ideas.

DIY: Unleash your creativity!

Let’s take a simple example of what is creative thinking and how it works:  

You see a picture of a child who is eating M&M’S®.  Your task is to find the best slogan for this. Maybe it will remind you of when you were a child yourself. And how you just loved chocolate! The good old times when you were eating candies with your older sister. She was so reasonable, even at that age, eating so slowly, enjoying every bite, you couldn’t understand how she was doing this… Maybe this old memory could inspire you for a great idea right now. Remember, this slogan you’re supposed to work on? What about “Melt in your mouth, not in your hand”? And there it is, we are in 1954 and you’ve just made up the famous M&M’S® slogan.   

Let’s have a more scientific look at what has just happened. In order to find creative ideas, it can often help to retrieve old memories or knowledge, such as precious childhood moments about yourself and chocolate. These memories often reflect our most natural instincts and inspirations. However, this implies acceptance that creativity is not a one-shot process but a trial-and-error mental effort, starting from the picture you’re looking at, through your precious childhood chocolate memories, to the new slogan you’re currently working on. Concretely, it means that we use our existing knowledge to build something new, and that we will fail a lot before finding the right solution. 

Give yourself a creative boost!

We often believe that being creative requires exceptional mental skills and that failing is worse rather than trying again. Not taking the risk of trying means that we don’t use the opportunity to be creative. So let’s trust our creativity, even when it’s going nowhere. I assure you, it will always end somewhere.

Author: Kim Beneyton

Buddy: Francie Manhardt

Editor: Christienne Damatac

Translator: Ellen Lommerse

Editor Translation: Wessel Hieselaar

Image credit: Piyapong89/Shutterstock

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