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Study: Surprises Can Jumpstart the Creative Process

Researchers recently studied how the unexpected affects creativity. The results are, well, a nice surprise.

Some of the best ideas come to mind when you least expect them. Those same great ideas might be the result of an unexpected experience, according a new study. 

European researchers recently examined the effect that the element of surprise has on creativity. More specifically, they looked at the way that unpredictability affects divergent thinking, or the process of generating as many ideas about a topic as possible within a short amount of time.  

The study involved two types of participants, which the researchers described as either "low in need for structure" or "high in need for structure," according to a post in Psychology Today. Both kinds of participants viewed one of two groups of photos.  

One collection of photos included people in costumes that were consistent with their surroundings--i.e. an Eskimo pictured in a snowy landscape. The other collection depicted people dressed in ways that didn't seem logical for the settings--for example, an Eskimo in the middle of a dessert.

The researchers then asked participants to generate as many names as possible for a new type of pasta. They were judged according to how many names they could come up with as well as whether they managed to brainstorm names that didn't just end in 'i.'  

The results? The inconsistent pictures seemed to boost creativity, but only for one group of people--those who were considered low in need for structure. Those who were classified as needing a lot of structure were worse off for looking at the incongruous photos. And viewing the consistent pictures didn't have an effect on either group of people. 

So, before you try out a new brainstorming technique, it might be a good idea to know which kind of thinker you are. Like rules and predictable work situations? You likely score high in terms of need for structure and thus too many surprises in a free-wheeling brainstorming session would be less than ideal. On the other hand, if you thrive in unpredictable situations, making a concerted effort to expose yourself to the new and unexpected might be what you need to jumpstart your brain.

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Last updated: Aug 15, 2014

LAURA MONTINI | Staff Writer

Laura Montini is a reporter at Inc. She previously covered health care technology for Health 2.0 News and has served as an associate editor at The Health Care Blog. She lives in San Francisco.




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