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7 Unusual Psychological Techniques

Everyone is creative: we can all innovate given time, freedom, autonomy, experience to
draw on, perhaps a role model to emulate and the motivation to get on with it.
But there are times when even the most creative person gets bored, starts going round in
circles, or hits a cul-de-sac. So here are 7 unusual creativity boosters that research has shown
will increase creativity:
1. Psychological distance
People often recommend physical separation from creative impasses by taking a break, but
psychological distance can be just as useful.
Participants in one study who were primed to think about the source of a task as distant,
solved twice as many insight problems as those primed with proximity to the task (Jia et al.,
20091).
For insight: Try imagining your creative task as distant and disconnected from your
current location. This should encourage higher level thinking.
2. Fast forward in time
Like psychological distance, chronological distance can also boost creativity.
Forster et al. (2004)2 asked participants to think about what their lives would be like one year
from now. They were more insightful and generated more creative solutions to problems
than those who were thinking about what their lives would be like tomorrow.
Thinking about distance in both time and space seems to cue the mind to think abstractly and
consequently more creatively.
For insight: Project yourself forward in time; view your creative task from one, ten or a
hundred years distant.
3. Absurdist stimulation
The mind is desperate to make meaning from experience. The more absurdity it experiences,
the harder it has to work to find meaning.
Participants in one study read an absurd short story by Franz Kafka before completing a
pattern recognition task (Proulx, 20093). Compared with control participants, those who had
read the short story showed an enhanced subconscious ability to recognise hidden patterns.
For insight: read Alice in Wonderland, Kafka's Metamorphosis, or any other absurdist
masterpiece. Absurdity is a 'meaning threat' which enhances creativity.
4. Use bad moods
Positive emotional states increase both problem solving and flexible thinking, and are
generally thought to be more conducive to creativity. But negative emotions also have the
power to boost creativity.
One study of 161 employees found that creativity increased when both positive and negative
emotions were running high (George & Zhou, 20074). They appeared to be using the drama
in the workplace positively.
For insight: negative moods can be creativity killers but try to find ways to use themyou
might be surprised by what happens.
5. Combining opposites
Interviews with 22 Nobel Laureates in physiology, chemistry, medicine and physics as well
as Pulitzer Prize winning writers and other artists has found a surprising similarity in their
creative processes (Rothenberg, 1996).
Called 'Janusian thinking' after the many-faced Roman god Janus, it involves conceiving of
multiple simultaneous opposites. Integrative ideas emerge from juxtapositions, which are
usually not obvious in the final product, theory or artwork.
Physicist Niels Bohr may have used Janusian thinking to conceive the principle of
complementarity in quantum theory (that light can be analysed as either a wave or a particle,
but never simultaneously as both).
For insight: set up impossible oppositions, try ridiculous combinations. If all else fails,
pray to Janus.
6. Path of most resistance
When people try to be creative they usually take the path of least resistance by building on
existing ideas (Ward, 19945). This isn't a problem, as long as you don't mind variations on a
theme.
If you want something more novel, however, it can be limiting to scaffold your own attempts
on what already exists. The path of most resistance can lead to more creative solutions.
For insight: because it's the path of least resistance, every man and his dog is going up and
down it. Try off-road.
7. Re-conceptualisation
People often jump to answers too quickly before they've really thought about the question.
Research suggests that spending time re-conceptualising the problem is beneficial.
Mumford et al. (1994) found that experimental participants produced higher quality ideas
when forced to re-conceive the problem in different ways before trying to solve it. Similarly
a classic study of artists found that those focused on discovery at the problem-formulation
stage produced better art (Csikszentmihalyi & Getzels, 19716).
For insight: forget the solution for now, concentrate on the problem. Are you asking the
right question?
Everyday creativity
Despite all the high falutin talk of Nobel Prize winners and artists, all of these methods can
be applied to everyday life.
Combining opposites, choosing the path of most resistance, absurdism and the rest can just
as easily be used to help you choose a gift for someone, think about your career in a new
way or decide what to do at the weekend. 'Off-duty' creativity is just as important, if not
more so, than all that 'serious' creativity.
10 Counterintuitive Psychology Studies
Some critics say psychology is just common sense1, that it only confirms things we already
know about ourselves.
Ironically this can be difficult to argue with because once people get some new information
they tend to think it was obvious all along.
One way of battling this is to think about all the unexpected, surprising and plain weird
findings that have popped out of psychology studies over the years. So here are ten of my
favourite.
1. Cognitive dissonance
This is perhaps one of the weirdest and most unsettling findings in psychology. Cognitive
dissonance2 is the idea that we find it hard to hold two contradictory beliefs, so we
unconsciously adjust one to make it fit with the other.
In the classic study3 students found a boring task more interesting if they were paid less to
take part. Our unconscious reasons like this: if I didn't do it for money, then I must have
done it because it was interesting. As if by magic, a boring task becomes more interesting
because otherwise I can't explain my behaviour.
The reason it's unsettling is that our minds are probably performing these sorts of
rationalisations all the time, without our conscious knowledge. So how do we know what we
really think?
2. Hallucinations are common
Hallucinations are like waking dreams and we tend to think of them as markers of serious
mental illness.
In fact they are more common amongst 'normal' people than we might imagine. One-third of
us report having experienced hallucinations, with 20% experiencing hallucinations once a
month and 2% once a week (Ohayon, 20004).
Similarly 'normal' people often have paranoid thoughts, as in this study I reported previously
in which 40% experienced paranoid thoughts on a virtual journey5. The gap between people
with mental illness and the 'sane' is a lot smaller than we'd like to think.
3. The placebo effect
Perhaps you've had the experience that a headache improves seconds after you take an
aspirin? This can't be the drug because it takes at least 15 minutes to kick in.
That's the placebo effect: your mind knows you've taken a pill, so you feel better. In
medicine it seems strongest in the case of pain: some studies suggest a placebo of saline
(salty water) can be as powerful as morphine (Hrobjartsson et al., 20016). Some studies even
suggest that 80% of the power of Prozac is placebo7.
The placebo effect is counter-intuitive because we easily forget that mind and body are not
separate.
4. Obedience to authority
Most of us like to think of ourselves as independently-minded. We feel sure that we wouldn't
harm another human being unless under very serious duress. Certainly something as weak as
being ordered to give someone an electric shock by an authority figure in a white coat
wouldn't be enough, would it?
Stanley Milgram's famous study8 found it was. 63% of participants kept giving electric
shocks to another human being despite the victim screaming in agony and eventually falling
silent.
Situations have huge power to control our behaviour and it's a power we don't notice until it's
dramatically revealed in studies like this.
5. Choice blindness
We all know the reasons for our decisions, right? For example, you know why you're
attracted to someone?
Don't be so sure. In one study people were easily tricked into justifying choices they didn't
actually make about who they found attractive. Under some circumstances we exhibit choice
blindness9: we seem to have little or no awareness of choices we've made and why. We then
use rationalisations to try and cover our tracks.
This is just one example of the general idea that we have relatively little access to the inner
workings of our minds10.
6. Fantasies reduce motivation
One way people commonly motivate themselves is by using fantasies about the future. The
idea is that dreaming about a positive future helps motivate you towards that goal.
Beware, though, psychologists have found that fantasising about future success is actually
bad for motivation11. It seems that getting a taste of the future in the here and now reduces
the drive to achieve it. Fantasises also fail to flag up the problems we're likely to face on the
way to our goals.
Instead of fantasising, use mental contrasting12.
7. Brainstorming doesn't work
Want to think outside the box? Do some blue sky thinking? Want to...[insert your own least
favourite clich here].
Well, according to psychological research, brainstorming doesn't work13. It turns out that in
groups people are lazy, likely to forget their ideas while others talk and worried about what
others will think (despite the rule that 'there are no bad ideas').
It turns out it's much better to send people off to think up new ideas on their own. Groups
then do better at evaluating those ideas.
8. Don't suppress
When you're down or worried about something people often say: "hey, try not to think about
it; just put it out of your mind!"
This is very bad advice. Trying to suppress your thoughts is counter-productive14. Like
trying as hard as you can not to think about pink elephants or white bears. What people
experience when they try to suppress their thoughts is an ironic rebound effect: the thought
comes back stronger than before. Looking for distractions is a much better strategy.
9. Incredible multi-tasking skills
Despite all the mind's limitations, we can train it do incredible things. For example we hear a
lot about our multitasking abilities, but with practice, did you know people can read and
write at the same time?
One study of multitasking trained two volunteers over 16 weeks until they could read a short
story and categorise lists of words at the same time. Eventually they could perform as well
on both tasks at the same time as they could on each task individually before the study
began.
Read a full description of the study, along with potential criticisms, here15.
10. It's the little things
We tend to think that the big events in our lives are the most important: graduation, getting
married or the birth of a child.
But actually major life events are often not directly as important to our well-being as the
little hassles and uplifts of everyday life (Kanner et al., 198116). Major events mainly affect
us through the daily hassles and uplifts they produce. The same is true at work, where job
satisfaction17 is strongly hit by everyday hassles.
What most affects people's happiness are things like quality of sleep, little ups and downs at
work and relationships with our friends and family. In other words: it's the little things that
make us happy.
If we can all be creative, why is it so hard to come up with truly original ideas?
It's because creativity is mysterious. Just ask any scientist, artist, writer or other highly
creative person to explain how they come up with brilliant ideas and, if they're honest, they
don't really know.
But over the decades psychologists have given ordinary participants countless tests, forms
and tasks and conducted hundreds of hours of interviews. From these emerge the
psychological conditions of creativity.
Not what you should do, but how you should be...
The Dark Side of Creativity
Creative individuals are more likely to be arrogant, good liars, distrustful, dishonest and
maybe just a little crazyOK, let's say eccentric.
We hear a lot about the benefits of being creative but less about the dark side of creativity.
I recently wrote about why people secretly fear creative ideas1, which hints at a dark side,
but what about creative people themselves? Do they pay a price for their creativity?
Psychological research has only recently begun examining the dark side of creativity but it's
already turning up some interesting findings. Here are some of my favourite insights.
Liars
An alien observing humans for the first time might wonder why we pay people to lie to us.
We would have to explain that we call novels, TV shows and films 'fiction', not lies.
Then we'd concede that sometimes we enjoy being lied to, especially when the lies are much
more entertaining than reality.
Given all the practice they get, we might expect, then, that creative people should be better at
lying.
And, indeed, this seems to be true: Walczyk et al. (2008)2 tested it by giving participants a
series of everyday dilemmas to solve. Highly creative people told more and better lies than
those who were less creative.
Arrogant
On the positive side, creative people are generally open to new experiences, but how easy are
they to get along with?
Until now much of the research on agreeableness, one of the five fundamental aspects of
personality, has been mixed.
New research, though, has looked at two sub-types of agreeableness (Silvia et al., 2011)3.
This found no association between agreeableness and creativity, but a strong negative
association with honesty-humility.
In other words, creative people tend to be arrogant.
Distrustful
Is there a link between thinking distrustful thoughts and increased creativity?
Consider this: being distrustful means being more likely to distrust surface appearances and
have a desire to work out what is really going on. In other words distrust breeds a sort of
'what-if' mindset: exactly the sort of mindset associated with creativity.
Distrust may also breed flexibility in thinking. Instead of taking things at face value, people
with suspicious minds try to see things from different angles. That's yet another marker of
creativity.
When Mayer and Mussweiler (2011)4 tested this idea experimentally they found good
evidence to support it. Participants who primed with the idea of being distrustful came up
with more creative ideas and showed greater cognitive flexibility.
But crucially these results were only found when participants were being privately creative.
When people thought creative ideas would be made public, distrustful thoughts didn't
increase creativity.
Perhaps that's why it's hard to spot creative people. They are more likely to be distrustful of
others and so keep their creative ideas to themselves.
Evil
So far creative people have been characterised as arrogant, distrustful and good liars but not
actually evil. But perhaps there is something to the evil genius stereotype?
Across a series of studies Gino and Ariely (2011)5 found that creative people displayed all
sorts of dishonest traits:
Creative people were more likely to cheat on a game in the lab,
Creative people were better at justifying their dishonesty afterwards,
Creativity was more closely associated with dishonesty than intelligence.
While creativity produces all sorts of positive, beneficial outcomes, it also allows people to
cheat more easily, and to cover up their cheating behaviour.
Criminal
Let's stop beating around the bush: does being creative help you become a master-criminal?
There are certainly examples of creative criminals. Shirley Pitts was a famous British
shoplifter who got around the security tag system by simply lining her carrier bag with metal
foil. She could then put what she liked in her bag and walk out without the alarm going off.
But that may well be an unusual exception as there's little strong evidence that creativity is
unusually high amongst criminals (Cropley & Cropley, 20116). On average criminals show
relatively low levels of creativity, along with a lack of social conformity and low levels of
inhibition.
However there is some evidence that when it comes specifically to crime, criminals are
creative. After all, it is their job.
Or maybe the really creative criminals are just too creative to get caught...
Crazy
A strong link exists in the popular imagination between madness and creativity. The
evidence, though, is more equivocal.
Certainly creative people score higher on psychoticism, meaning they tend to be more cold,
antisocial, egocentric and low in empathy. But generally this is balanced out by high self-
esteem, high intelligence and the ability to keep their worst excesses in check.
It also depends on the type of genius you are. On average mental health is best amongst
creative geniuses who are natural scientists (like physicists and chemists), is worse amongst
social scientists (including psychologists), worse still in the humanities and is at its lowest in
the arts (Simonton, 20097).
Simonton argues that creative geniuses aren't necessarily crazy, a better word to describe
them is eccentric.
Dark side
So creativity isn't all upside. Creative individuals are more likely to be arrogant, good liars,
distrustful, dishonest and maybe just a little crazyOK, let's call it unusual or eccentric.
But what would the world be like without its creative eccentrics? I'll tell you: a very boring
place.
Still, perhaps you'll think twice the next time you admit how creative you are!
As Pablo Picasso once pointed out, all children are creative; the challenge is to remain
creative into adulthood.
Unfortunately public education systems around the world seem designed to crush creativity
in favour of rote learning and test passing. As the years pass a fear of being wrong takes over
from our natural creative tendencies.
Unlike mathematics, languages or the humanities, we are rarely taught about creativity,
despite its importance to our lives. Yet the information is out there, waiting to be used.
If you would like to be more creative at work and at homeand that has to be most of us
the insights in this ebook will be useful.
7 More Psychological Techniques
Trying to make connections? Here are seven more research-based techniques to increase
creativity.
"Creativity can solve almost any problem. The creative act, the defeat of habit by originality
overcomes everything." ~George Lois
Following on from a previous article on how to be creative1, which had a tremendous
response, here are another 7 techniques for breaking through a creative block.
1. Counterfactual mindset
Conjuring up what might have been gives a powerful boost to creativity.
Markman et al. (2007)2 found that using counterfactuals (what might have happened but
didn't) sometimes doubled people's creativity. But counterfactuals work best if they are
tailored to the target problem:
Analytical problems are best tackled with a subtractive mind-set: thinking about what
could have been taken away from the situation.
Expansive problems benefited most from an additive counterfactual mind-set: thinking
about what could have been added to the situation.
2. Two problems are better than one
People solve many problems analogically: by recalling a similar old one and applying the
same, or similar solution. Unfortunately studies have found that people are poor at recalling
similar problems they've already solved.
In a counter-intuitive study, however, Kurtz and Lowenstein (2007)3 found that having two
problems rather than one made it more likely that participants would recall problems they'd
solved before, which helped them solve the current problem.
So don't avoid complications, gather them all up; they may well help jog your memory.
3. Generic verbs
Another boost for analogical thinking can be had from writing down the problem, then
changing the problem-specific verbs to more generic ones.
What Clement et al. (1994)4 discovered when they tested this method was that analogical
leaps are easier when problems were described in looser, more generic terms. In this study
performance increased by more than 100% in some tasks.
This is just one of a number of techniques which encourage focus on the gist of the problem
rather than its specific details.
4. Synonyms and category taxonomies
Just like changing the verbs, re-encoding the problem using synonyms and category
taxonomies can help.
This means analysing the type of problem and coming up with different ways of representing
it. Lowenstein (2009; PDF5) emphasises the importance of accessing the underlying structure
of the problem in order to work out a solution.
5. Fight! Fight! Fight!
We tend to think that when people are arguing, they become more narrow-minded and rigid
and consequently less creative.
But, according to research by Dreu and Nijstad (2008)6, the reverse may actually be true.
Across four experiments they found that when in conflict people engaged more with a
problem and generated more original ways of arguing.
Being in social conflict seems to give people an intense motivated focus. So, to get creative,
start a fight.
6. Think love not sex
Forster et al. (2009)7 found that when experimental participants were primed with thoughts
of love they became more creative, but when primed with carnal desire they became less
creative (although more analytical).
While it certainly isn't the first time that love has been identified as a creative stimulus,
psychologists have suggested a particular cognitive mechanism.
Love cues us with thoughts of the long-term, hence our minds zoom out and we reason more
abstractly and analogically. Sex meanwhile cues the present, leading to a concrete analytical
processing style. For creativity, abstraction and analogy are preferred.
7. Stop daydreaming
To increase creativity we're always hearing about the benefits of daydreaming for incubating
ideas. It's a nice idea that all the work is going on under the hood with no effort from us. But
you'll notice that all the methods covered here are active rather than passive.
That's because the research generally finds only very small benefits for periods of incubation
or unconscious thought (Zhong et al., 20098). The problem with unconscious creativity is
that it tends to remain unconscious, so we never find out about it, even if it exists.
The benefit of incubating or waiting may only be that it gives us time to forget all our initial
bad ideas, to make way for better ones. Moreover, incubating only works if the unconscious
already has lots of information to incubate, in other words if you've already done a lot of
work on the problem.
So: stop daydreaming and start doing!
Move abroad and learn another language
If all that fails, including the 7 techniques9 from the previous article, then I've got one
radical, bonus suggestion: move to another country and learn another language. Maddux and
Galinsky (2009)10 found that people who had lived abroad performed better on a range of
creative tasks.
In an experimental test of this idea, Maddux et al. (2010)11 asked participants to recall
multicultural learning experiences and found that this made people more flexible in their
thinking and better able to make creative connections.
This only worked when people had actually lived abroad, not when they just imagined it.
As Pablo Picasso once pointed out, all children are creative; the challenge is to remain
creative into adulthood.
Unfortunately public education systems around the world seem designed to crush creativity
in favour of rote learning and test passing. As the years pass a fear of being wrong takes over
from our natural creative tendencies.
Unlike mathematics, languages or the humanities, we are rarely taught about creativity,
despite its importance to our lives. Yet the information is out there, waiting to be used.
If you would like to be more creative at work and at homeand that has to be most of us
the insights in this ebook will be useful.