PULLMAN, Wash. — Certain individuals tend to be more creative than others, but new research suggests anyone can tap into their imaginative side. What’s the secret? How do you become creative if it’s not natural to you? Emotional flexibility. Study authors from Washington State University report viewing emotional situations in a different light helps promote creativity among especially “conventional” thinkers.
Conventional thinkers, defined as those who rank low regarding openness to new ideas and experiences, were able to produce more creative ideas than their peers after practicing a technique called emotional reappraisal. This approach is all about viewing situations from a different emotional perspective. For example, attempting to see an event that would usually spark anger as more neutral or even positive/hopeful.
All in all, study authors say these findings suggest creativity is a skill that can be honed and trained by anyone. If you’re trying to figure out how to be creative, you must be willing to open your mind.
“One of the study’s implications is that creativity is not something that’s only accessible to people we think of as ‘creatives’,” says lead author Lily Zhu, an assistant professor in Washington State University’s Carson College of Business, in a university release. “Whenever we break away from our existing perspective and try to think about something that’s different from our initial reaction, there’s a creative element to it. If we can practice or train that flexible-thinking muscle, it may help us be more creative over time.”
In collaboration with scientists from University of California, Irvine, the research team in Washington conducted a survey and two experiments with three cohorts of participants. The first survey, encompassing 279 college students, showed that naturally creative people often practice emotional reappraisal regularly.
How to be creative: The study
Then, another experiment was conducted involving 335 people recruited via a crowdsourcing platform. Subjects in this project were divided and ranked according to their openness levels and subsequently presented with a film scene designed to elicit anger. As they watched, they were provided one of a few possible instructions: suppress their emotions, think about something else to distract themselves, or try emotional appraisal. Some subjects were given no instructions at all.
After finishing the film, subjects were told to produce an idea on how best to utilize a space in their building recently vacated by a cafeteria that went out of business. Upon completion, those ideas were judged and evaluated by a “panel of experts” who didn’t know anything about the study participants. Ideas like simply opening a similar cafeteria or a food franchise were deemed low in creativity, while more outside-the-box ideas like using the space for “napping pods” or opening a childcare facility were labelled highly creative.
The final experiment featured an entirely different group of 177 participants. Subjects were asked to write about a past experience that made them angry. Then, they were told to either write about the incident again from a different emotional perspective or write about something else entirely as a distraction.
Across both experiments, more conventional-minded subjects who tried emotional reappraisal produced more creative ideas in comparison to conventional thinkers who had used suppression, distraction, or no emotional regulation strategy at all. Interestingly, emotional reappraisal didn’t increase creativity further among those already considered creative thinkers to begin with, indicating creative people naturally engage in emotional reappraisal regularly.
Study authors posit these findings may be of particular interest to the world of business. It appears encouraging creativity on the job can increase productivity, even in more conventional occupations like accounting, insurance adjustment or data analytics. Prof. Zhu suggests supervisors put together training programs designed to cultivate creative thinking skills in employees. Individuals can also try practicing emotional reappraisal the next time they encounter a crisis or challenge.
“Negative emotions are inevitable in the workplace,” Prof. Zhu concludes. “The question is not do we want negative emotions, or not? The question is: how can we better deal with them in a productive, healthy way? Part of the implications of this study is that we can use negative emotions in our everyday life as opportunities to practice flexible thinking.”
The study is published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.