Want creative solutions HEAD
4th May 2018
3 Min Read

Want creative solutions? Say cheese

Lindsay Kohler
Lindsay Kohler
Behavioural Science

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.

Fancy trying on a few other approaches to creativity?

  1. Change your environment: Take the team to a cafe or a park. Novel environments can spark novel ideas.
  2. Try rapping! It may feel silly, but rapping can help silence your inner-critic, which often stymies creativity. For example, when researchers conducted brain scans of professional rappers as they were improvising lyrics, the portion of the brain driving analytical thought and self control switched off! If rapping doesn’t feel right, you could instead try an improvisational acting exercise.
  3. Think the opposite. Different viewpoints can lead to more creative solutions. When you’ve picked an idea you like, have the team deliberately take the opposing viewpoint and see what shakes out. This can boost creativity by decreasing complacency of thought as logic and habit regularly lead us to the same conclusions. For example, Dick Fosbury won the gold medal in the 1968 Summer Olympics by jumping over the high jump bar backwards. Until then, most jumpers straddled the bar.

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.

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