People Underestimate Their Creative Potential

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They say Thomas Edison tested more than 1,600 different materials before he figured out a way to design his electric lightbulb, a reminder that “lightbulb moments” are not usually the sudden flashes of insight we believe them to be. More often than not, they’re preceded by a lot of boring, hard work. 

But people tend to doubt their own ability to stick to the tedious trial-and-error part of creative work, suggests a large new study from Northwestern University, published recently in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Across seven experiments involving more than 1,200 participants, psychologists Brian J. Lucas and Loran F. Nordgren found that people underestimated how many creative solutions they could come up with in a given amount of time, suggesting, the researchers argue, that in a real-life situation, they might give up too easily. And that’s a problem, they say, because their results also showed that the participants’ ideas became more creative as they persisted.

Each of the seven experiments followed a similar format: First, the study volunteers were given a set amount of time to come up with as many ideas as they could for solving some particular question or problem. In one experiment, for example, they were to imagine as many weird dishes as they could that might make sense to include at a Thanksgiving dinner; in another one, comedians were presented with the start of a sketch-comedy scene and given four minutes to come up with as many punch lines as they could.

They worked on that for a while, and then stopped, and the experimenters asked them how many more additional ideas they thought they could come up with if they were given more time. And then the researchers actually did make them work on the thing for longer, allowing them to compare how many ideas the study participants thought they could generate with how many ideas they actually did produce. Across all seven experiments, the volunteers ended up coming up with more ideas than they thought they could in that second brainstorming session — in the Thanksgiving one, for example, they thought they had about ten more ideas left in them, but thought up 15 more items.  

And not only did they come up with more ideas than they expected, those ideas got better as they kept working, as judged by an independent team of raters. This is consistent with the findings of previous studies on creativity — for example, one 1970s study of classical composers found a link between higher-quality pieces and the total number of compositions that an individual composer had produced. A huge part of creative work, after all, is failure: the terrible, weird ideas that lead the way to the truly great and original ones. The famed psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi theorized that this helps explain why “flow” leads to those bursts of insight: When people are absorbed by a task, they “persist … single-mindedly, disregarding hunger, fatigue, and discomfort.” Concentrating deeply in one area for an extended period of time allows you to examine the thing from different angles, understanding the nuances of the problem. 

But if the researchers hadn’t been there to force their guinea pigs to persist on the task at hand — would they have kept at it? They didn’t specifically test for that (and I wish they had!) but Lucas and Nordgren argue that the volunteers’ low opinion of their own idea-generating powers indicates that they would not have. “Our studies suggest that people may underestimate their creative potential in everyday creative tasks and that people may leave creative ideas on the table by failing to invest in persistence,” they write in their paper. There are so many suggestions and tips and “lifehacks” out there intended to help people boost their creativity, but this research suggests that the best advice may also be the most boring: Just keep at it. You might end up surprising yourself.