How Dis­com­fort Makes Us More Cre­ative

Business a.m. - - EXECUTIVE KNOWLEDGE SERIES - Ben­jamin Kessler Li Huang is an As­sis­tant Pro­fes­sor of Or­gan­i­sa­tional Be­hav­iour at INSEAD. “This ar­ti­cle is re­pub­lished courtesy of INSEAD Knowl­edge(http://knowl­ Copy­right INSEAD 2020

MI­NOR DIS RUPTIONS TO THE sta­tus quo, against a back­ground of psy­cho­log­i­cal safety, may be the best for­mula for cre­ative cul­tures.

About 20 or 30 years ago, a sea change be­gan to oc­cur in the aca­demic re­search around creativ­ity. Pre­vi­ously the ex­clu­sive prov­ince of per­son­al­ity psy­chol­o­gists, the topic started to at­tract the in­ter­est of a dif­fer­ent breed of scholar: so­cial psy­chol­o­gists. As a re­sult, the fo­cus of study grad­u­ally grav­i­tated away from fig­ur­ing out what made cre­ative ge­niuses like Pi­casso tick, and to­ward fac­tors in the so­cial en­vi­ron­ment that could en­cour­age any­one to be­come more cre­ative.

Li Huang, INSEAD As­sis­tant Pro­fes­sor of Or­gan­i­sa­tional Be­hav­iour, pointed out that even the most in­no­va­tive minds may ex­pand, or con­tract, in re­sponse to en­vi­ron­men­tal and cul­tural cues. “There was a time when Al­bert Ein­stein was at­tend­ing a school that eval­u­ated and tested stu­dents quite harshly, and he nearly lost his in­ter­est in science. It was only when he failed a test and moved to a dif­fer­ent school that val­ued in­di­vid­ual thought and creativ­ity that he started to de­velop his in­ter­est fur­ther,” she re­lated in a re­cent in­ter­view for the INSEAD Knowl­edge podcast.

For pro­fes­sion­als, a sup­port­ive cul­ture is es­pe­cially im­por­tant, be­cause go­ing out on a limb with an un­likely idea car­ries heavy per­ceived risks. “We’re not the most com­fort­able as a species about things that are novel or for­eign. But that also means that when some­one in the group or or­gan­i­sa­tion ad­vo­cates for a bit of an edgy so­lu­tion that hasn’t been seen be­fore, our ini­tial re­ac­tion of­ten­times is, ‘Why? If it’s not bro­ken, why fix it?’” Huang said. An at­mos­phere of psy­cho­log­i­cal safety – where peo­ple gen­er­ally feel less threat­ened and de­fen­sive – helps to tame this con­ser­va­tive bias.

Be­yond a safe en­vi­ron­ment, how­ever, sev­eral strands of Huang’s re­search sug­gest that the non-Ein­steins among us also need a bit of shak­ing up be­fore we can be at our most cre­ative. Creativ­ity, she has found, thrives upon small doses of dis­com­fort. A com­pany, there­fore, needn’t be a par­adise of peace to coax cre­ative ideas out of the shad­ows – it can pur­pose­fully jolt them out by launch­ing mi­nor dis­rup­tions against a back­drop of psy­cho­log­i­cal safety.


For ex­am­ple, a 2015 pa­per by Huang, Francesca Gino of Har­vard Univer­sity, and Adam D. Galin­sky of Columbia Univer­sity found a pos­i­tive causal ef­fect of sar­casm on creativ­ity. Study par­tic­i­pants who ut­tered, or were ex­posed to sar­cas­tic re­marks, per­formed bet­ter on creativ­ity tests than those who ex­pe­ri­enced ei­ther sin­cere state­ments or those in a con­trol group.

“When we speak or are on the re­ceiv­ing end of sar­casm, we jump into men­tal gym­nas­tics to rec­on­cile the psy­cho­log­i­cal dis­tance be­tween what is spo­ken and what the state­ment in­tends to con­vey,” Huang said. “Our think­ing be­comes more ab­stract, we suf­fer less from func­tional fixed­ness, and this helps make us more cre­ative.”

It is worth not­ing that, be­fore re­lax­ing so­cial stric­tures around sar­casm, com­pa­nies should first con­cen­trate on in­creas­ing the gen­eral level of trust among em­ploy­ees. In ad­di­tion to height­ened creativ­ity, con­flict­ual feel­ings can also rise from sar­casm – an un­wanted side ef­fect of the sly ag­gres­sion em­bed­ded in sar­cas­tic wit. In other words, there are good rea­sons why we tend to be spar­ing with our sar­casm, es­pe­cially at work. It can come across as rude, flip­pant and of­fen­sive – not a great way to en­dear one­self to col­leagues. An­tic­i­pat­ing such re­la­tional costs, in sub­se­quent stud­ies, Huang’s re­search found that those neg­a­tive feel­ings sub­sided when par­tic­i­pants were primed to imag­ine that they were talk­ing to the per­son they most trusted. The re­la­tional costs of sar­casm don’t ma­te­ri­alise when our bonds are strong enough to with­stand sar­casm, and the creativ­ity ben­e­fits re­main.

Spe­cific cu­rios­ity

In a 2019 pa­per, Huang and her co-au­thors[1] sought to pin­point the causal ef­fect of cu­rios­ity on creativ­ity, two qual­i­ties that were of­ten linked but whose spe­cific in­ter­con­nec­tions were not well un­der­stood.

The re­searchers’ sur­pris­ing hy­poth­e­sis was that cu­rios­ity pre­dicts creativ­ity when it is de­ployed within nar­row pa­ram­e­ters, to solve a par­tic­u­lar prob­lem or puz­zle – or, as schol­ars term it, spe­cific cu­rios­ity. Creativ­ity schol­ars usu­ally fo­cus on cu­rios­ity that freely flits from sub­ject to sub­ject, trac­ing novel tra­jec­to­ries as it goes. Spe­cific cu­rios­ity is more dis­com­fit­ing, re­sem­bling an itch to re­solve a highly lo­calised point of un­cer­tainty or challenge.

This form of cu­rios­ity can be har­nessed for cre­ative pur­poses through a tech­nique known as idea link­ing. As Huang de­scribed it, “When peo­ple are high on spe­cific cu­rios­ity, they don’t just gen­er­ate what­ever ideas come to their mind ran­domly. Rather, they would have an ini­tial idea and their next idea would be built upon the ini­tial idea with­out aban­don­ing it.”

In place of the usual freefor-all style of brain­storm­ing, lead­ers could con­sider us­ing idea link­ing. Though po­ten­tially more men­tally tax­ing, it could lead to greater creativ­ity. In one of their re­search stud­ies, for ex­am­ple, par­tic­i­pants were asked to come up with a magic trick sur­pass­ing Harry Hou­dini’s “van­ish­ing ele­phant”. A pair of pro­fes­sional ma­gi­cians then chose their favourites from among the pro­pos­als. The ideas of those who were led to be cu­ri­ous about Hou­dini’s orig­i­nal trick made more use of idea link­ing, and were deemed most cre­ative.

Mind-body dis­so­nance

Huang’s most re­cent re­search looks at mind-body dis­so­nance (MBD), or what hap­pens when there is a con­flict be­tween our state of mind and our phys­i­cal ex­pres­sions. In a se­ries of stud­ies in­volv­ing more than 1,000 par­tic­i­pants, Huang in­duced MBD by prim­ing par­tic­i­pants to feel cer­tain emo­tional states (pow­er­ful or pow­er­less, happy or sad, etc.), then ask­ing them to adopt phys­i­cal ex­pres­sions that ei­ther cor­re­sponded with or con­tra­dicted those states. Af­ter­wards, she had them solve var­i­ous brain­teasers and in­sight prob­lems. Those who ex­pe­ri­enced MBD scored higher in sev­eral ar­eas re­lated to creativ­ity, in­clud­ing in­sight, as­so­ci­a­tion and cre­ative gen­er­a­tion.

Why? Huang hy­poth­e­sised – and her ex­per­i­ments con­firmed – that MBD en­gen­ders an “atyp­i­cal­ity mind-set”, es­sen­tially fool­ing our brains into be­liev­ing we are in an un­usual sit­u­a­tion re­quir­ing new kinds of re­sponses and so­lu­tions.

How­ever, MBD has down­sides as well. In a pa­per for Or­ga­ni­za­tional Be­hav­ior and Hu­man De­ci­sion Pro­cesses (co-au­thored by Jen­nifer Whit­son of UCLA), Huang shows that MBD in­creases con­spir­a­to­rial think­ing and erodes trust, as a kind of com­pen­sa­tion for the feel­ings of help­less­ness trig­gered by im­posed in­au­then­tic­ity.

“We’re mo­ti­vated to try to re­plen­ish a sense of con­trol,” Huang ex­plained. “Our mind tries to es­tab­lish pat­terns and pre­dictabil­ity when we sense a lack of con­trol.” MBD-driven para­noia, she as­serted, is the dark side of creativ­ity, which de­pends on just such an abil­ity to draw un­ex­pected con­nec­tions be­tween con­cepts. Whether the chain re­ac­tion trig­gered by MBD (or any type of de­lib­er­ate dis­com­fort) goes right or wrong can de­pend on how psy­cho­log­i­cally safe one feels in gen­eral.

Flow­er­ing un­der stress

To Huang, the three stud­ies reflect the idea that step­ping out­side your com­fort zone is a good way to lib­er­ate the cre­ative juices, pro­vided the con­text is suf­fi­ciently for­giv­ing. For ex­am­ple, a be­gin­ner’s dance or im­prov class can be a safe space to ex­per­i­ment with un­fa­mil­iar per­sonae and pos­tures that pro­mote atyp­i­cal think­ing.

Huang uses a gar­den­ing anal­ogy to il­lus­trate how a lit­tle pres­sure can in­duce pos­i­tive growth. “When plants are un­der a cer­tain amount of stress, that’s when they go into an en­tirely dif­fer­ent stage of growth – whether it’s from no flow­er­ing to flow­er­ing, or flow­er­ing to fruit­ing. It’s the same for hu­man be­ings.”

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