The Constraint of Examples

(From Contagious’ Georgia Malden)

Dr Anna Abraham (reader in psychology at Leeds Beckett University in the UK) discussed a bias that she called ‘the constraint of examples’. This is the notion that if you show people examples that are very salient to the problem at hand it imposes huge limitations on their ability to generate new solutions. This is based on an experiment conducted by a team of cognitive psychologists of creativity in the 1990s. They asked two groups to come up with ideas for a toy that had never existed before. To one group they showed ‘inspiration’ examples of toys other people had come up with; to the other they showed no examples. Lo and behold, the group that had seen the examples came up with ideas that shared many similarities to what they’d seen; while the group that hadn’t seen the examples came up with more innovative toy ideas.

The results of the experiment felt all too familiar. Have you ever been in an ‘ideation’ workshop where the ideas generated bear a remarkable resemblance to some of the inspiration material just shown, however much people are encouraged to ‘think wide’? (By the way, according to the same toy experiment, asking people to ‘think wide’ has no effect whatsoever.)

Dr Abraham explained in the podcast (check it out here, from about 20 minutes in) that there are two key factors at play when it comes to creativity – novelty and usefulness. That is: the generation of original ideas, and the selection of the most useful idea based on past experience or memory. For something to be creative, it can’t just be new, it also needs to have practical value. These two processes are not linear, nor present in different hemispheres of the brain (the old left-brain, right-brain theory) but they are constantly interacting.

The problem is that the usefulness route offers the path of least resistance. The easiest way to come up with a solution is to draw on the most applicable known precedents, particularly from recent memory. But if you do that, you’re not going to come up with anything new. Meanwhile the novelty function requires what Abraham calls ‘conceptual expansion’ – the ability to broaden the parameters of what you think is relevant.

The good news is that you can help people do this by juxtaposing or connecting previously unlinked or loosely related concepts in a new way. I.e. use examples, but make sure they come from tangential and seemingly unrelated categories to start making connections people might not previously have thought of. This is not miles away from the combination or recombination theory of creativity, which argues that new ideas are really the product of combining or remixing other ideas (see for example Steven Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From and William Duggan, Creative Strategy).

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