How do we value and choose ideas? Study finds our tastes influence creativity

PARIS, France — Many view creativity as a mysterious process that suddenly grips and transports us. To get a better understanding of this undertaking, French researchers are on a quest to uncover why we lean towards certain innovative ideas over more traditional ones and how we evaluate the worth of these creative thoughts.

“Creativity can be defined as the ability to produce original and relevant ideas in a given context, to solve a problem or improve a situation. It is a key skill for adapting to change or provoking it,” says Alizée Lopez-Persem, a researcher in cognitive neuroscience at the Paris Brain Institute, in a media release. “Our team is interested in the cognitive mechanisms that enable creative ideas to be produced, hoping to learn how to use them wisely.”

Experts agree that creativity involves two phases: brainstorming new ideas and then assessing their viability. How we assess and prioritize these ideas, though, remains a gray area.

Abstract representation of creativity
Abstract representation of creativity. (CREDIT: Paris Brain Institute)

“We need to value our ideas to select the best ones,” says Lopez-Persem. “However, there is no indication that this operation corresponds to a rational and objective evaluation in which we try to inhibit our cognitive biases from making the best possible choice. We, therefore, wanted to know how this value is assigned and whether it depends on individual characteristics.”

A fresh perspective on this comes from neurologist Emmanuelle Volle’s research group, which suggests that creativity has three core elements:

  1. Exploration: Drawing from personal knowledge to dream up potential solutions.
  2. Evaluation: Weighing the worth of an idea.
  3. Selection: Opting for the idea that will be vocalized.

The team designed a computational model mimicking these three elements and tested it against real-life behaviors. They invited 71 individuals through the Paris Brain Institute’s PRISME platform to engage in free association tests where they combined words in unique ways. Participants then ranked these word combinations based on their liking, relevance, and originality.

“Our results indicate that the subjective evaluation of ideas plays an important role in creativity,” states Volle. “We observed a relationship between the speed of production of new ideas and participants’ level of appreciation of these ideas. In other words, the more you like the idea you are about to formulate, the faster you come up with it. Imagine, for example, a cook who intends to make a sauce: the more the combination of flavors seduces him in his mind, the faster he will throw himself on the ingredients! Our other discovery is that this assessment combines two subjective criteria: originality and relevance.”

An intriguing revelation was how participants valued “originality” and “relevance.” Some prized the novelty of an idea, while others its practicality. It turns out those with a penchant for originality often put forward more inventive concepts.

The findings challenge traditional notions about creativity, suggesting it might not be as elusive as once believed. There’s potential to pinpoint creativity’s mechanisms neurologically and computationally. Looking ahead, Lopez-Persem envisions mapping creativity profiles linked to professions.

“In the future, we want to define different creativity profiles related to people’s fields of activity. Do you have different creative preferences if you are an architect, software engineer, illustrator, or technician?” adds Lopez-Persem. “Which environments foster creativity, and which ones inhibit it? Could we modify or re-educate our creative profile through cognitive exercises to match personal ambitions or needs? All these questions remain open, but we firmly intend to answer them.”

The study is published in the journal American Psychologist.

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