When I was 7, one of my friends got a whiteboard in her room. Much like the closet to Narnia or Platform 9¾, we saw this whiteboard as the key to unlock our imaginations. We used it to design our dream theme park, called Kids World. Each time I went over to my friend's house, we added more to the board. I never forgot Kids World, and now, with years of experience innovating, I would presumably be able to design a better, more creative Kids World.
But according to science, this may not be the case. New research by UC Berkeley psychologists suggests that creativity generally tends to decline as we age. Through a series of experiments, it was found that adults resorted to less creative thought processes than children. But not to worry--you don't have to Benjamin Button your way back to creativity. By understanding our adult tendencies, we can be as creative as children. Here are three ways to recover some of the creativity of youth.
1. Entertain the non-obvious.
In one experiment, researchers presented preschoolers, pre-adolescents, teenagers, and adults with two scenarios and two possible hypotheses that could explain each scenario. One hypothesis was an obvious explanation while the other was an unusual, non-obvious one. Adults chose the obvious hypothesis, while children more often chose the non-obvious. Most of the time, creativity is in the non-obvious choice. When searching for ways to explain observations or brainstorming new ideas, encourage yourself and your teams to set the obvious explanation aside while you give at least brief thought to the less obvious. Though it may slow down the search for an answer, it may speed up the process of unlocking creativity.
2. Consider situation before disposition.
In another part of the experiment, researchers shared a social situation with the same age groups. Again, there were two possible explanations, but this time, one focused on people's traits (i.e., this person must be risk-averse) while the other focused on the situation (i.e., there was something about the circumstances that made the person feel less safe). Adults chose the dispositional hypothesis while children more often chose the situational one. According to social psychology, adults are more likely to attribute outcomes to people's nature or character rather than the situations they're in. This bias may cause us to miss significant details about the environment. When designing new ideas or processes for your customers or employees, think not only about who they are but also about their situational contexts. Doing so may help you solve their unmet needs in new ways.
3. Ignore what you know.
In a final experiment, researchers shared new information with participants meant to change whatever explanation they had previously chosen. Children were more adept at changing their explanations while adults held on to previous notions despite new data. While knowledge and experience are frequently beneficial, they can also steer us in the wrong direction. To lower this risk, take time to pause and deliberately consider new information when you receive it. Expect it to change what you know and assess it with this mindset.
As adults, we have the benefit of being able to exploit our existing knowledge as a shortcut to processing new information. Children need to take time to explore and discover. Creativity, however, is not about efficiency. While we can't get younger, we certainly can find creative ways to think like kids.