Johnnie Moore

Stress, creativity and confabulation

Johnnie Moore

Johnnie Moore

I’m Johnnie Moore, and I help people work better together

Ok here’s another insight gleaned from Keith Sawyer’s Group Genius. I’ve blogged before about Keith’s ideas about the impact of time pressure on creativity, and I was intrigued by the research he himself did inside an organisation.

He watched people working under differing levels of pressure – on high stress, hectic days as well as slower, less pressured days. Most of the subjects said they felt they were more creative on the high pressure days – reflecting conventional wisdom that deadlines and other stresses provoke more ideas. A lot of brainstorming activities try to create urgency on the basis that it stimulates more ideas.

I’ve often subscribed to that view myself. I recall writing my best comic material at university when under extreme exam revision stress or facing a mega-essay crisis.

Here’s the kicker. Keith didn’t just take these subjective assessments at face value, but studied what the workers actually did – and he found there was greater collaboration, and more idea development/sharing, on low pressure days when conversations could be more casual.

I think we’re often mistaken in our views of what works and doesn’t work for us – something hugely backed up in work like Dan Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness. And as I reflect on those bursts of creativity at Oxford, I realise that they were at the least distractions from the stated goal.

Keith’s work also emphasises how we deceive ourselves about leaps of insight, assigning credit for apparently sudden bursts of insight to a variety of causes. Closer examination shows that our minds actually build towards ideas in a process of slow, often unconscious, accretion. And we’re bad at giving credit where due.

For instance, he reports an experiment where subjects enter a large room with two ropes hanging from a ceiling at some distance. The task is to find a way to tie the ropes together. The trouble is, they are so far apart that if you grab one and walk towards the other, you can’t stretch far enough to reach it.

So in the first run, people generally fail to solve it. In a second version, however, the experimenter briefs subjects and on leaving the room brushes, apparently accidentally, one of the ropes so that it swings. Subjects are then more likely to spot the solution: start one rope swinging, grab the other rope and walk it within range of the swinging rope.

And here’s the really fascinating bit: when interviewed, the successful swingers give no credit whatever to the experimenter’s actions at the start. Instead, they confabulate a series of stories about where they got the idea from. They’re not lying deliberately, it’s just a natural human characteristic not to notice the small links in the chain of thought that gives us insights.

Fascinating to think about in a world where networking makes those kinds of small connection ever more plentiful. It’s not surprising that some people and organisations are very eager to claim ownership of ideas that really belong to the community.

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