Category: Creativity

Is creativity something you inherit from your parents?

6930271257_36904725a1_bBy Alex Fradera

Jeb Bush’s failure to secure a Presidential triple-play is memorable perhaps because it’s an exception to a familiar routine: the family dynasty. It’s a routine especially common in the arts, where a writer’s family tree is apt to contain a couple of actors, a director, and maybe a flower arranger to boot. This might simply reflect upbringing – or maybe the powers of nepotism – but creative success also owes to temperament and talents, some of which may have their origins in our genetic makeup. The journal Behavioural Genetics has recently published a heritability study that explores how deeply a creative vocation sits in our DNA.

Continue reading “Is creativity something you inherit from your parents?”

Psychologists have devised a test for measuring one-year-olds’ creativity


A team of psychologists in England say they’ve developed a reliable way to measure divergent thinking in one-year-old infants. Divergent thinking is a form of creativity that involves uncovering new ideas or ways of doing things. The finding published in Child Development opens up the possibility of exploring the early factors that lead one infant to be more creative than another, and potentially intervening to help foster creativity extremely early in a child’s life.

Elena Hoicka and her colleagues filmed 29 toddlers (average age of 19 months) as they played freely on their own with a specially designed box that was paired for 90 seconds at a time with one of five unusual objects, including a wire egg cup and a plastic hook.

Later, researchers watched back the videos and counted how many unique actions each child performed with each object. To be counted as a new action, the child had to do something different with the object, or perform the same action with the object but on a different part of the box. The box featured various compartments, steps, shelves, holes and strings, offering a multitude of ways to play. The greater the number of different actions that the toddlers performed with the objects and box, the higher the divergent thinking score they received.

The researchers found that there was a wide spread of scores on the test showing its ability to differentiate between children. What’s more, when the same toddlers performed the test two weeks’ later, they tended to achieve very similar scores second time around. In psychological jargon, this is a sign of “test/re-test reliability”, which suggests the test is measuring a persistent trait of divergent thinking, rather than the influence of momentary factors such as mood or fatigue. Also, most toddler actions performed during the second test were new, so it wasn’t just that higher scoring toddlers were remembering their actions from the first session.

Another aspect of the study was that the researchers asked each toddler’s mother or father to complete an adult test of divergent thinking that involved completing partially drawn images in imaginative ways. The parents’ creativity scores showed a moderate to high correlation with their toddlers’ scores. This could be because creativity is partly inherited through genes, or it could be due to toddlers learning from their parents’ creativity. Another intriguing possibility raised by the researchers is that creative toddlers may influence their parents’ creativity. “It is possible,” they write,” that if a parent has a child who tends to explore, parents may be influenced by this and also explore more”.

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Hoicka, E., Mowat, R., Kirkwood, J., Kerr, T., Carberry, M., & Bijvoet-van den Berg, S. (2016). One-Year-Olds Think Creatively, Just Like Their Parents Child Development DOI: 10.1111/cdev.12531

further reading
Cultivating little scientists from the age of two
The jokes that toddlers make
Pre-schoolers can tell abstract expressionist art from similar works by children and animals

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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Is this why the research on creativity and mental illness is so contradictory?

From Van Gogh to Poe, history is littered with famous cases of creative geniuses plagued by inner turmoil. But going beyond the anecdotal, are creative people really more prone to mental health difficulties?

Past studies have led to conflicting results – for every one that uncovered a link, another has come along with the opposite result. In a new paper in Psychological Bulletin, a Netherlands-based team led by Matthijs Baas takes us through a tour of this earlier work and they propose a brain-based explanation for why the results are so messy.

Baas’s team begin with findings from earlier meta-analyses – studies that pool data from prior research. These reviews show that “positive schizotypic symptoms” such as impulsivity, hallucinations and superstitious beliefs are more common among creative people, but “negative schizotypic symptoms” – such as cognitive disorganisation and forms of anhedonia, a reduced capacity to enjoy pleasure – are actually less common.

Baas and his colleagues suggest this is because of the relationship between positive and negative schizotypic symptoms and our brain’s two basic motivational systems – the approach system and the avoidance system. The approach system is creativity friendly, as the neurotransmitter dopamine encourages exploration and the pursuit of rewarding stimuli. It is linked to high mood, exploration, and even to difficulties inhibiting ‘irrelevant experience’ – not unlike positive schizotypy. Meanwhile, the serotonin-charged avoidance system deals with threat, and leads to reduced flexibility and focused rather than open information processing – which links with the low mood and disrupted attention that characterises negative schizotypy. So this taxonomy makes sense of the different results: approach system symptoms are more frequent in creative people who have more dominant approach systems, whereas avoidance-related symptoms are less frequent. Supporting this, another avoidance-like condition – trait anxiety – has been shown to be slightly less common among more creative people.

Baas’s team wanted to see if this pattern generalises beyond schizophrenia-related symptoms to the approach-like condition of bipolar disorder and to depression – avoidance’s black dog. They gathered nearly 2000 scholarly citations that referenced creativity and these two conditions, and then shaved them down to 39 depression studies, 28 bipolar, mostly peer reviewed work, together with some theses and unpublished work. Note, these studies dealt with non-clinical instances – so depressive mood or manic tendencies, rather than formal diagnoses.

The relationship between bipolar tendencies and creativity was clear and positive (an overall correlation of .224 where 1 would be a perfect match). This correlation was strongest when considering self-report studies, rather than those that actually tested creativity; this suggests an association between bipolar and an inflated sense of creativity. But still, a significant correlation remained when stripping out the self-report.

Meanwhile, depression showed the expected negative relationship with creativity. However, this association it was very small (the correlation was -.064). The previous findings with negative schizotypy were also small which could suggest that the avoidance system is only a minor impediment to creativity, or that the picture is more complicated. Supporting the latter position, the data suggest that the relationship is stronger in certain social groups – non artists – and in older adults.

We should note that the data discussed in this new study is all from healthy people whose symptoms were not serious enough to warrant a clinical diagnosis. There may be different factors at work among creative people who have more serious mental health problems, as was the case for Van Gogh and Poe. One possibility here is that being highly creative is a risk factor for mental health because it pits people against rigid societal boundaries. Another may be that atypical experiences – such as committal to a mental institution – may kindle different ways of looking at the world. But this study suggests that sitting underneath these complex dynamics are deeply grounded tendencies: to follow our flights of fancy or stay close to home.

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Baas, M., Nijstad, B., Boot, N., & De Dreu, C. (2016). Mad Genius Revisited: Vulnerability to Psychopathology, Biobehavioral Approach-Avoidance, and Creativity. Psychological Bulletin DOI: 10.1037/bul0000049

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

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Teams are more creative when their leader is confident in her or his own creativity

If you’re wondering who to appoint to run a team with creative goals, you might favour a non-creative, reasoning that it’s down to the team members to generate creativity, with the person at the top acting more as driver and dogged coordinator. However, new research in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes suggests that teams produce more creative outcomes when their managers have greater confidence in their own creativity.

Lei Huang of Auburn University and his collaborators surveyed 106 team leaders in a large tech company based in the US, canvassing their creative self-efficacy (CSE): their belief in their own ability to complete creative goals, as measured through survey items like “I have confidence in my ability to solve problems creatively.”

The researchers also surveyed team members, 544 in all, who had spent an average of four years in the company. They said they were more willing to focus on creative activities – “I spend considerable time sifting through information that helps to generate new ideas” – when they were led by an individual who had scored higher in CSE; they also rated high CSE leaders as being more encouraging of creativity. These effects were amplified when team members felt they had better relationships with their manager. Did team members with creatively confident leaders actually deliver more creative work? Yes, at least according to the team leaders: those who scored higher on CSE were more likely to report that their teams were a “good source of creative ideas”.

To sum up, modelling of the data showed that creatively confident leaders had teams more invested in creative activities, that saw the leadership as encouraging creativity (all the more when relationships were strong), and that produced more creative work overall. Now, you could imagine the opposite to be the case: that creative leaders pursue their own creative ideas to the cost of supporting their followers, and are reluctant to view what their followers produce as creative, due to their own higher bar for what counts as such. No doubt such cases exist. But this study suggests that in normal functioning leadership contexts, managers recognise that the route for delivering the kind of work they care about is through their followers, so if they want creative results, they have to facilitate it, not produce it personally. In addition, people higher in CSE are known to be less conformist and receptive to ideas; they get creative behaviours.

One weakness of this study is that the measure of team creative performance was subjective, and moreover, rated by the leaders themselves. It could be that creative-minded leaders are more ready to see the creativity in team members. So Huang’s team recommend future work with objective ratings or via ratings by other coworkers.

Creative self-efficacy is likely not the only trait that disposes leaders to encourage creativity, but it is one of the few so far explicitly identified by research. And the good news is self-efficacy can be developed. So organisations may want to look at how to foster their leaders’ confidence in their own creative skills: this will boost their motivation to generate new approaches, and help them recognise that the risks and occasional failures along the way are worthwhile.

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Huang, L., Krasikova, D., & Liu, D. (2016). I can do it, so can you: The role of leader creative self-efficacy in facilitating follower creativity Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 132, 49-62 DOI: 10.1016/j.obhdp.2015.12.002

further reading
Mixing your teams up is key to group creativity
Why it’s so important that team members believe they’re on the same page
Jokey team meetings are more productive, as long as people laugh along
Reverse psychology: How bad managers inspire team camaraderie

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

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People low in agreeableness ("jerks") are particularly adept at selling their creative ideas

“The normal rules of social engagement, he feels, don’t apply to him,” designer Jonathan Ive on his boss, the late Steve Jobs. (via WIRED).

Tales of Steve Jobs’ “jerkiness” are legendary. Other iconic creative visionaries have similarly been known for their “difficult” personalities, from Sopranos creator David Chase to Thomas Edison. Anecdotally then, it seems like having what psychologists might call a “disagreeable personality” (i.e. scoring low on the “agreeableness dimension” of the Big Five Factor theory of personality) ought to help people be more creative.

Yet research to date has largely neglected this possibility and focused much more on the positive associations between creativity and another Big Five personality trait – openness to experience. In their new paper in the Journal of Business Psychology, Samuel Hunter and Lily Cushenberry suggest this oversight is due to the fact that psychologists have been preoccupied with studying idea generation. However, creativity is a social endeavour – if you want people to embrace your novel ideas, rather than brush them to one side, you need to be willing to put your ideas on the line in the first place, weather any negative feedback, and then have the strength of character to convince people why your ideas have merit. For these sharing and promotional aspects of creativity, Hunter and Cushenberry reasoned having a disagreeable personality may well be advantageous.

Just over 200 uni students first worked alone for ten minutes, typing out ideas for a marketing campaign for the online campus of their university. Then they formed groups of three and worked for 20 minutes as a group on a joint marketing plan. The students also all completed measures of their personality and their ability to come up with unusual uses for everyday objects (a basic test of idea generation).

A student’s level of disagreeableness on the personality measure (a high score on disagreeableness indicates a more “argumentative, egotistical, aggressive, headstrong and hostile” personality, the researchers said) was not related to their ability to come up with useful and original marketing ideas on their own (or their performance on the unusual uses test), but was related to how much their ideas tended to be taken up by their group. Moreover, this was especially the case when the group itself was made up of more disagreeable personalities. Stated colloquially, being a jerk isn’t advantageous for coming up with useful, original ideas, but it does seem to be advantageous for getting your ideas heard, especially in an environment consisting of pushy characters.

A second study largely backed this up, and showed again the importance of social context. Nearly three hundred students first spent time working alone coming up with ideas for a gift for their university campus (that would impress visitors). Next they shared their ideas with two other students who would subsequently form their group. In reality, these individuals were assistants working for the researchers and they gave either deliberately supportive or negative feedback to each participant (and to each other).

In the final stage, the participants worked with their two team members to come up with ideas for “a dorm room of the future” and here the supposed team members deliberately came up with either creative or boring suggestions to further simulate different working conditions. This research showed that having a disagreeable personality wasn’t associated with the students’ ability to come up with original ideas on their own, but was related to their being willing to share original ideas in a group context, especially when that context was harsh (with negative feedback flying around), and in a culture where other team members were coming up with quality ideas of their own.

There’s always a question mark over how much lab research like this, involving students, is likely to translate to the real world. Also, the observed benefits of disagreeableness were seen here over a very short space of time – it remains to be seen whether they would persist over weeks, months or years of working together. Nonetheless, the researchers said their findings suggest that “being a ‘jerk’ may not be directly linked to who generates original ideas, “but such qualities may be useful if the situation dictates that a bit of a fight is needed to get those original ideas heard and utilised by others.”

________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Hunter, S., & Cushenbery, L. (2014). Is Being a Jerk Necessary for Originality? Examining the Role of Disagreeableness in the Sharing and Utilization of Original Ideas Journal of Business and Psychology, 30 (4), 621-639 DOI: 10.1007/s10869-014-9386-1

further reading
For group creativity, two narcissists are better than one

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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Help me out – but hands off! How idea territoriality harms creative team work

If you want quality feedback on your creative ideas, don’t be too possessive about them

Patents, citations, and copyright all indicate how much it matters to people that they can claim an idea as their own. But new research suggests that staking a claim during the early stages of idea development can be counterproductive, as it cools the enthusiasm others have for making it better.

Graham Brown and Markus Baer asked their participants – 230 students at a Singaporean university – to provide feedback on a proposal on how to best promote a restaurant. Under one “hands off” condition, the covering letter for the proposal mentioned that “although I am asking you for your input, I consider this to be my proposal, not yours.” Participants who read this provided significantly less creative input, giving mundane and straightforward comments compared to those who hadn’t  read such a statement. They also gained less pleasure out of the feedback activity; it seemed as if they simply disengaged when they didn’t feel they could have any ownership or role in the direction of the idea.

In a second experiment with American students, Brown and Baer found that the effect was particularly strong when the participants asked to give feedback were also primed to think of themselves as independent people (they were told they stood out from others and how this is beneficial). When you feel independent-minded you want to make your own unique impact on the world, not be a cog in a larger wheel.

In contrast, priming participants to feel interdependent by describing how and why they fit in to society led to the opposite effect: they made better contributions in the ‘hands-off’ condition. An interdependent mindset prefers accord over dissent, making critical feedback an uncomfortable act, and the authors speculate that this discomfort is less when it’s apparent that any collaboration is going to be transient.

That is a sliver of good news, but this isn’t a desirable trade-off. Independent minded people are more disposed to provide challenging ideas that stand out from the norm, which means we want to encourage these people to get stuck in. If we are truly committed to the success of our vision, we may need to let it fly free in its infancy, and trust that credit will come to those who do the heavy lifting of helping ideas become reality.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Brown G, & Baer M (2015). Protecting the Turf: The Effect of Territorial Marking on Others’ Creativity. The Journal of applied psychology PMID: 25938721

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

Everyone is attracted to creativity. But which creative acts are the sexiest?

Who finds Bill Gates’ creativity sexy?

By guest blogger Sam McNerney

Ever since the Sirens seduced sailors with their music, Sophocles entertained ancient Athens, and our Paleolithic ancestors decorated cave walls in Lascaux, individuals have been drawn to acts of creativity. Today, the allure of creativity is all the more apparent. After Tim Berners-Lee created the World Wide Web in 1991, we’ve witnessed a proliferation of creative expression on YouTube channels, blogs, and even Twitter.

Given the undeniable link between human nature and creativity, it’s no surprise that psychologists study why creativity exists. Geoffrey Miller has argued that it evolved as a result of sexual selection. In this view, creative expressions are like a peacock’s tail, a not-so-subtle advertisement to potential mates. Others add that creativity evolved to solve problems. Our species expanded beyond the Savannah not by multiplying but innovating.

So what counts as an “act of creativity”? Are all creative behaviours equally sexy? Is everyone attracted to the same creative behaviours?

A group of creativity researchers led by Scott Barry Kaufman addressed these questions in a paper just published in The Journal of Creative Behavior. They began by drawing on the research of Gregory Feist, who differentiates three forms of creativity: ornamental/aesthetic (art, music), applied/technological (science, engineering) and everyday/domestic creativity (interior decorating, making a new recipe).

The participants were an “ethnically diverse” sample of 815 individuals—119 males and 696 females. For the first part of the experiment, they completed a 43-item checklist in which they ranked creative acts such as  “painting a picture,” “writing short stories,” and “making websites” in terms of sexual attraction. Then they took a shortened version of the Raven’s Progressive Matrices Test and the Word Knowledge Test to measure general cognitive ability. Finally, they completed a personality test and a questionnaire about their own creative achievements.

The purpose of the tests and questionnaires was to find correlations between intelligence, personality, and creative achievements and the creative acts each participant preferred. Do certain types of people find certain forms of creativity sexier than others? Or is one form of creativity universally attractive?

The first finding confirmed previous research—people generally prefer creative acts in the ornamental/aesthetic domain. According to the participants, some of the sexiest creative behaviours are activities like writing music, taking photographs, writing poetry, and performing in a band. Kaufman, on his blog “Beautiful Minds,” clarified that artistic forms of creativity evoke the strongest emotions because they “were shaped primarily by sexual selection pressures.” (He quotes Daniel Nettle: “You remember Beethoven and Brahms, but can you name a single innovator in the field of sewer construction and sewage treatment?”)

But that’s not the whole story. Participants who made creative achievements in technology and scored high on intellectual curiosity—this group ranked things like “making websites” and “writing an original computer program” higher than average—had a bias for the applied/technology domain. Science nerds were attracted to science nerds.

On the other hand, the best predictor for a preference toward the ornamental/aesthetic domain was not creative achievement within the domain, but openness to new experiences, one of the big five personality traits. Among the male participants, creative achievements in the everyday/domestic domain also predicted a preference for ornamental/aesthetic creativity. For the men, the researchers also found a negatively correlation between a preference for applied/technology creativity and general cognitive ability.

Overall, the paper supports the theory that sexual selection molded our creative instincts to perform music, writing stories and poetry, and create visual art – creative acts within the ornamental/aesthetic domain that indicate desirable traits such as mental fitness and displays of openness to experience that, as Kaufman puts it in Mating Intelligence Unleashed, “are ‘more in-your-face’ than applied/technology forms of creativity … “.

The paper also provides a more nuanced perspective. If we want to understand why creativity is sexy, we must take into account individual differences. What we like and what we’ve accomplished shape the creative behaviours we’re drawn toward.  

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Kaufman, S., Kozbelt, A., Silvia, P., Kaufman, J., Ramesh, S., & Feist, G. (2014). Who Finds Bill Gates Sexy? Creative Mate Preferences as a Function of Cognitive Ability, Personality, and Creative Achievement The Journal of Creative Behavior DOI: 10.1002/jocb.78

Post written by Sam McNerney (@sammcnerney) for the BPS Research Digest. McNerney is a US writer with a focus on cognitive psychology, philosophy and business. He’s written for Scientific American, Scientific American Mind, Fortune, Fast Company, TechCrunch and BBC Focus and maintained a blog on BigThink.com called Moments of Genius. He currently blogs at his website: sammcnerney.com.

Can a brain scan tell us anything about the art of creative writing?

When an accomplished creative writer gets on with their craft, their brain operates in a somewhat different way to a novice’s. A new imaging study suggests that the expert approach may be more streamlined, emotionally literate, and initially unfiltered.

Katharina Erhard with her colleagues from the German universities of Greifswald and Hildesheim asked participants to read a fragment of a story, to brainstorm what could continue the narrative, and then, for two minutes, to write a continuation of the story. Their brains were scanned throughout. This is an improvement on previous studies that have simply involved participants imagining a story while lying in a scanner.

Participants were 20 experts – students on competitive creative writing courses with over 10 years experience and a weekly average of 21 hours practice – and 28 novices practicing less than an hour per week. Independent judges considered the experts’ writing significantly more creative: “unmade laundry, unloved days” was how one expert closed his response to an account of a bitter bachelor killing himself in a laundry, whereas a tale of a violinist losing his instrument in the snow conjured this image: “the glacier, winding its tongue around the sounds, suddenly gulped the violin”. The differences between expert and novice brain activation during the writing phase offers some tantalising clues to how such quality emerges.

In the frontal cortex, expert brains showed greater activity in areas crucial to language and goal selection, including across the inferior frontal gyri (IFG). Verbal creativity has been associated with left IFG activation many times before, but involvement of the right IFG was unexpected. The area is associated with emotional language processing, such as interpreting expressive gestures, so this may suggest that experts are attending more deeply to the emotional currents of text and their ideas. Together with recent evidence that metaphor comprehension recruits the right temporal lobe, this suggests a role for processes housed in the right hemisphere when a verbal task is more abstract and less factual.

Expert writing also involved more activation in the left caudate. This is part of the basal ganglia, long known to be critical to learning and expert performance, and seems to reflect ordinarily cortical cognitive processes becoming automatised and bundled together within the deeper brain. In this case, these may be to do with visually processing text, as the experts showed less activation in occipital areas involved in visual and perceptual processing.

One final finding: during brainstorming, expert brains showed increased activation relative to novices in several regions associated with speech production. Taking these findings together, they paint a picture of expert creative writers: ideas bubble within them, already on the road from concept to expression, readily communicable, almost rising into their throats. These are handled by neural systems streamlined to take care of the basics, while the writer devotes greater attention to the emotional interpretation of their text. It will be down to future researchers to verify or reject this characterisation – and hopefully, some great future writers to tell us about it. Maybe you.

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Erhard, K., Kessler, F., Neumann, N., Ortheil, H., & Lotze, M. (2014). Professional training in creative writing is associated with enhanced fronto-striatal activity in a literary text continuation task NeuroImage, 100, 15-23 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2014.05.076

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

Is group brainstorming more effective if you do it standing up?

Experts say that spending more time standing at work is good for your physical well-being. Now there’s another reason to ditch your office chair. According to psychologists in the US, standing improves group brainstorming sessions.

Andrew Knight and Markus Baer recruited 214 undergrads to take part in a 30-minute brainstorming session in groups of three to five people. The challenge for the groups was to come up with ideas for a university recruitment video, which they then recorded at the end of the session.

All groups were filmed as they took turns to conduct their brainstorm in the same room – a 13.5 x 8.5 foot space, with table, whiteboard and note pads. For half of the groups, there were five office chairs around the table, whereas for the other groups there were no chairs.

Knight and Baer found that groups working in the room with no chairs showed higher arousal, as measured by a gadget worn around the wrist that detected skin sweatiness. Students in these groups also showed reduced territoriality, which means that individuals felt less possessive of the ideas they generated. This might be because the lack of chairs encouraged them to share the physical space and this facilitated a sharing mindset. The good news is both these factors – higher arousal and less territoriality – were associated with more “idea elaboration”. This is the process, crucial for successful group brainstorming, by which each individual’s best ideas are recombined with other people’s, or improved upon by others.

Strangely, the researchers don’t report whether students in the chairless room spent more time standing (perhaps they sat on the floor?). However, the chairless students did say afterwards that they felt there was more room to move around, and their higher arousal could be a sign of more movement.

The researchers concluded: “Our results suggest that if leaders aspire to enhance collaborative knowledge work, they might consider eschewing the traditional conference room setup of tables and chairs and, instead, clear an open space for people to collaborate with one another.”

The downer for this study is that while a space with no chairs was beneficial for the manner in which students worked together, ultimately there was no improvement in terms of the final videos that they produced. That is, videos produced by groups working in a room with no chairs were rated by judges as no more polished or creative, than videos produced by groups working in a room with chairs. Further research, preferably with creative professionals, is needed to replicate the main finding that standing brainstorms are conducted in a more effective way, and to see whether this can boost final creative output.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Knight, A., & Baer, M. (2014). Get Up, Stand Up: The Effects of a Non-Sedentary Workspace on Information Elaboration and Group Performance. Social Psychological and Personality Science DOI: 10.1177/1948550614538463

–further reading–
Why do we still believe in group brainstorming?
The much maligned group brainstorm can aid the process of combining ideas
Forget brainstorming – try brainwriting!

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

If an artist is eccentric we find their work more enjoyable and assume it’s more valuable

Pop star Lady Gaga appears at the
MTV Awards 2010 in a dress
made from raw meat. 

Van Gogh sliced off his own ear. Truman Capote insisted he could only think in a supine position while sipping coffee and puffing on a cigarette. Michael Jackson hung out with a chimp, and posed for photographers while sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber. Lady Gaga attended an awards ceremony wearing a dress made from meat. There’s a stereotype that creative people are eccentric and it’s easy to find examples like these to support the point.

A new study shows that because of this widely held stereotype, people infer that work made by an eccentric person is better and more valuable than work produced by a conventional character. Eccentricity is taken as a sign of artistic skill, except when the work in question is conventional and/or the display of eccentricity is judged to be fake.

Wijnand van Tilberg and Eric Igou tested these ideas across five studies. In the first, 38 students rated a painting by Van Gogh more positively if they were first told about the ear-cutting incident. In two other studies, dozens more students rated paintings by a fictional Icelandic artist more positively and estimated it to be more valuable if they were told he had an eccentric personality, or if they saw a photograph showing him looking eccentric, unshaven with half-long hair (as opposed to seeing a photo showing him looking conventional, with short hair and neat clothing).

The fourth and fifth studies highlighted some caveats. Students rated the unconventional art of Joseph Beuys (“The Pack”) more positively if they were told that Beuys was eccentric in that he had a habit of carrying roadside stones on his head. However, the same yarn about Andrea del Verrocchio did not lead to higher ratings for his conventional art (“Lady of Flowers”). Similarly, seeing a photo of Lady Gaga crouching in an usual outfit (tight, all black, with shiny mask) led student participants to rate her as more highly skilled compared to seeing her seated in a conventional black dress; unless, that is, the students were told that Gaga’s eccentricity is fake and no more than a marketing ploy. In other words, eccentricity of the artist leads to more positive ratings of their work, unless that work is conventional, and/or the artist’s unusual behaviour is seen as contrived.

“To the best of our knowledge,” the researchers said, “this is the first detailed empirical research that establishes a link from creator eccentricity to appreciation of creative works.” Their results build on prior research that’s shown thinking about unusual people boosts a person’s creative output. The findings also fit with a prior study of “stereotype confirmation”, in which listeners rated a rap more positively if they were told it was by a Black artist. “The perception of creative endeavours, typically considered as (usefully) original, deviant, and novel, is deeply embedded in conformist processes,” van Tilberg and Igou said.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

WIJNAND ADRIAAN PIETER VAN TILBURG and ERIC RAYMOND IGOU (2014). From Van Gogh to Lady Gaga: Artist eccentricity increases perceived artistic skill and art appreciation. European Journal of Social Psychology DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.1999

–further reading–
Poets and artists have as many ‘unusual experiences’ as people with schizophrenia

Image of Lady Gaga reproduced here via aThinkStock licence.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.