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Great article in the Times this morning on creativity: Suntae Kim, Evan Polman and Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks wanted to know if there is any psychological truth to metaphors such as “think outside the box,” and “on the one hand; on the other hand…”
Researchers had already found that someone holding a warm cup of coffee tends to perceive a stranger as having a “warmer” personality. Other studies have shown that if a person is holding something heavy, they tend to view things as more serious and important… more “weighty.”
But the authors asked 102 undergraduates at NYU to complete a task designed to measure innovative thinking.
The type of task was to (for example) generate a word (“tape”) that related to three clue words: “measure,” “worm,” and “video.”
Some students were randomly assigned to do this while sitting inside a 125-cubic-foot box that we made of plastic pipe and cardboard. The rest got to sit and think outside (and next to) the box.
…We found that those thinking outside the box were significantly more creative: compared with those thinking inside the box, they came up with over 20 percent more creative solutions.
In another study students were asked to think of original used for particular objects made of Lego blocks; but they had to do it while walking along a fixed rectangular path indicated by duct tape on the floor — marking out an area of about 48 square feet. Other students were allowed to walk as freely as they wished.
They found striking differences. Those who walked freely were better at generating creative uses for the objects — coming up with over 25 percent more original ideas.
Such creativity was assessed in terms of fluency (the number of ideas generated) flexibility (the number of unique categories that described the generated ideas), and originality (as judged by independent raters).
On the one hand…
The researchers found that something similar happens when thinking about a problem “on one hand and then on the other.”
Forty undergraduates from the University of Michigan were asked to lift and hold a hand outstretched (“as you might when addressing an audience from a stage”) while generating novel uses for a new university complex.
Some were asked to lift just one hand. others were asked to switch between hands.
Among students who were allowed to switch hands (literally on the one hand, on the other hand) they found a nearly 50 percent increase in the number of uses generated.
The authors feel they are close to finding some sources of creativity.
By showing that bodily experiences can help create new knowledge, our results further undermine the strict separation between mind and body — another box that has confined our thinking for a long time.
Additionally, the authors say, even though researchers are only starting to grasp how catch-phrases shape how people think, it may now be possible to prescribe some novel suggestions to enhance creativity. For instance, perhaps if we’re performing a job that requires some “outside the box” thinking — it may be literally a good idea to avoid working in cubicles.
Suntae Kim is a doctoral candidate and Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks is an associate professor, both in management and organizations, at the University of Michigan. Evan Polman is visiting assistant professor of management and organizations at NYU.
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