Everybody loves creativity. Organizations spend large sums of money on programs designed to "unleash creativity"-- from Edward de Bono's lateral thinking program to Tony Buzan's mind-mapping techniques, to Scott Isaksen and Donald Treffinger's creative problem solving Process (CPS). But can creativity really be trained?
In one of the biggest reviews on this topic, Ginamarie Scott and colleagues assessed the effectiveness of 156 training programs and found that 11 forms of training did have some value. The techniques that were particularly effective were those that targeted the cognitive processes underlying creativity, such as idea generation. Likewise, two other studies [see here and here] found that training ideational skills had a positive impact on creative thinking, both alone and in a group brainstorming context.
Another form of creativity training that has shown some positive effects is "relaxation training", which includes exercises such as stretching and breathing. Relaxation training appears to increase creativity by reducing anxiety and freeing the mind from negative thinking. This form of training is related to mindfulness meditation. Indeed, a recent review of the literature found a moderate relationship between creativity and mindfulness-- with the relationship strongest for "open-monitoring" meditation (try this form of meditation here).
In a brand new study, Peter O'Conner and colleagues randomly assigned participants to engage in either (a) ideational-skills training, (b) relaxation-training, or (c) a control condition that involved watching videos about "emotional intelligence".
In the ideational-skill training condition, participants watched an 8-minute video where they learned examples of idea-generating techniques. These techniques included brainstorming ("allowing all ideas to be considered without criticism"), forced relation ("utilizing items in one’s immediate surroundings to generate or develop ideas"), checklist ("considering a checklist of three terms – “maximize”, “minimize”, and “rearrange” – to enhance components of an existing idea, by asking oneself “Can an idea be improved by enlarging, rearranging, or reducing any of its components?”"), and catalogue ("referencing a catalogue to stimulate or expand ideas").
In the relaxation-training condition, participants watched a 10-minute video with the same format (featuring the same instructor using slides). However, in this video, the instructors focused on activities designed to relax participants, including meditation, stretching, breathing exercises to breath deeply and slowly, and enhancing awareness of thoughts and feelings (e.g., stress, anxiety) that might inhibit creative performance. The instructor also trained participants in positive self-talk, goal-setting, and visualization to further help them in overcoming stress, anxiety, and worry. These techniques were taken from previously published studies (see here here, and here).
Finally, they tested everyone's creativity by having participants generate as many unusual uses for common objects (e.g., newspaper, paperclip) as possible in two minutes, and having them engage in creative problem solving by recombining common ideas according to unfamiliar patterns. For instance, in one task participants were presented with 10 groups of 10 words and were asked to create as many meaningful grammatical sentences as possible in 10 minutes.
What did they find?
First, they found that both ideation-training and relaxation-training showed increases in creative thinking. Second, they found that two personality traits in particular were related to creative thinking: extraversion and openness to experience. This is consistent with prior research showing that both of these traits are linked to creative thinking. Extraverts are outgoing, excitement-seeking, assertive, enthusiastic, talkative, energetic, and active. Recent research shows that the common theme is "reward sensitivity"-- extraverts tend to be fueled by dopamine, particularly through the reward circuits of the brain that cause them to feel energized by the possibility of "appetitive rewards" in the environment, such as social status, money, and power.
People who are high in openness to experience are imaginative, curious, insightful, artistic, clever, and inventive. In my own research, I've found that openness to experience is the single best predictor of creative achievement. However, we found that the effect of extraversion on lifelong creative achievement wasn't as high. I think that extraversion is more linked to on-the-spot creative thinking than lifelong creative achievement because extraverts are energized by the possibility of achieving external rewards from doing well on a creativity task. The dopamine of extraverts tends to make them more likely to put forth effort when extrinsic motivation is high. But in the long-term, creativity requires many years of personally meaningful work that is more intrinsically motivated.
Which leads to another fascinating finding from their study: while ideational-skills training benefited extraverts more than introverts, relaxation training benefited introverts more than extraverts.
Taken together, these results suggest that creativity can be trained (at least in the short-term), and that personality matters in terms of the effectiveness of the training. Extraverts are probably better suited to ideational-training because this form of training is more stimulating and demands fast thinking. The increased arousal that is likely to result from this form of training is likely to benefit extraverts more than introverts. For instance, on a new test of introversion I developed with the Quiet Revolution team, the two main dimensions of introversion are (a) preference for quiet and reduced stimulation over excitement, and (b) preference for deep, deliberate thinking over quick thinking. In contrast, relaxation-training is more likely to benefit introverts more than extraverts because it helps reduce arousal.
There are obvious practical implications here for organizations that wish to increase creativity in their employees. Brief, online programs can save a lot of costs than bringing in an expensive consultant. Also, as the researchers note, while improvements may only be short-term, short-term improvements can still be valuable. A 10-minute training program may only improve creative performance for the duration of the day, but if implemented at the start of a planning-day, short-term improvements in creativity can still translate into long-term organizational benefits.
To be sure, we still have a long way to go in understanding which training programs increase creativity and why. Also, I believe we need to go beyond measuring creativity in such a brief, on-the-spot, high-pressure way. Many people aren't at their creative best when they are forced to "Be creative!" on the spot, and will be far more creative when given the opportunity to think deeply and reflectively in the comfort of quiet. Nevertheless, this is an important line of research, and at least there is tentative evidence that creativity can be trained, that there are at least two forms of training that are particularly relevant to creative performance (ideation and relaxation), and that personality matters in moderating the effects of creativity training.
© 2016 Scott Barry Kaufman, All Rights Reserved