Introducing the Green Eggs and Ham Hypothesis of Creativity

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Midway through his career, Theodore Geisel — better known, of course, as Dr. Seuss — took a bet from his editor: to write a children’s book using just 50 words. To say that Geisel won the bet is understating things a bit, as the book became Green Eggs and Ham, the 1960 classic featuring a creature named Sam-I-Am who just really wants his pal to open his mind to the culinary joys of green-tinted breakfast foods.

Catrinel Haught Tromp, a psychologist at Rider University, calls this the Green Eggs and Ham hypothesis of creativity, the somewhat paradoxical idea that boundaries or limits can result in more, not less, creative thinking. Haught Tromp recently put her idea to the test, and the results were published this month in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. Earlier this week, Tom Jacobs at Pacific Standard detailed the experiments:

[S]he devised a study in which 64 undergraduates were asked to create a series of two-line rhymes that conveyed a greeting-card-friendly message, such as “happy birthday,” “thank you,” or “I love you.” On half of the trials, they were further instructed to include in their message one of eight specific words: shirt, vest, dog, frog, doll, kite, drum, and harp. Some of the participants completed those rhymes first, followed by the ones that lacked this limitation; for the others, the order was reversed. According to three independent judges, “participants generated more creative rhymes when they had to work with the externally imposed constraint of a given noun.” Moreover, even after that restriction was removed, they did more creative work than their fellow students who completed the unrestricted rhymes right off the bat.

Haught Tromp’s study didn’t test why setting restrictions for yourself might ultimately result in greater creativity, but I think we can reason it out for ourselves. When these study volunteers — or Geisel, for that matter —were given limits, they had to work much harder to create anything of value. If you limit yourself to just a few specific topics, that of course means you must delve deeply into those topics, and so it makes sense that the results might be better — and, maybe, weirder — than they might be if you had anything and everything in the world from which to choose.

It’s just one study, of course, and there are times when letting your mind wander freely, with no restrictions whatsoever, may be the best thing to do. But when you reach a creative block, it could be a handy trick to keep in mind; if it was good enough to inspire the creation of Sam-I-Am, it might work for you, too.