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Want creative solutions? Say “cheese”.

When someone mentions creativity, what do you think of?

Artists poised, brush in hand? Poets staring whimsically into the middle distance? Or maybe even agency types brainstorming ideas over a ping pong table (hmmm!)? The truth is, a bit of creative thinking can generate very practical solutions to day-to-day problems.


So why is it sometimes hard to think creatively?

In 2001 at the University of Maryland, Ronald Friedman and Jens Förster published research that might hold the answer. They asked two groups of people to solve a very simple maze puzzle involving a cartoon mouse. Both groups were asked to help the mouse get out of the maze. For one group, the aim was to guide the mouse to a reward – a tasty lump of cheese. For the other, it was to help the mouse escape the clutches of a hungry owl.

People in both groups completed the maze puzzle easily. They were then asked to take part in a seemingly unrelated creativity task. The people who had solved the ‘cheese’ version of the maze were found to be twice as creative as those who had done the ‘owl’ version.

What was going on? Well, the cheese version of the puzzle activated people’s ‘approach’ mode. It’s a frame of mind that’s associated with relaxed, open thinking and the ability to spot opportunities. The threat of the owl, on the other hand, triggered the ‘avoidance’ mode of thinking. This is related to our fight or flight response and it makes us wary, cautious and focused on avoiding disaster rather than exploring possibility.

For internal communications teams that need to think creatively, the implications are pretty clear: an atmosphere in which people are afraid of missing deadlines or making mistakes isn’t likely to spark creative thinking. As IC professionals, we’ll get better ideas if we emphasise opportunities and celebrate success.

So, next time you need a creative solution, look for the cheese.



Need a hand making creativity a reality? Take a look here at how we helped our client explore how they could become more creative in a bespoke group workshop