Contradictions and Creativity

There appear to be many factors that infiltrate the creative realm when dealing with problem solving. Obviously, the way we think is of paramount importance. Rarely do we think along the “straight and narrow” but usually have to navigate various problematic areas before arriving at some conclusion. Notice I didn’t say the “correct” or most viable solution.

Studying this trait in creative development, Art Markman, Ph.D., a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think, drew upon a paper, referenced below, that deals with creativity research and how contradictions play a part in evolving a solution.

Research on creativity points out that most thinking follows a path of least resistance in which a situation reminds people of experiences related to that situation, and they determine what to do based on what emerges from memory. This use of memory is valuable, because it is what enables people to use their experience to guide their actions. After all, people should generally do what they did in the past in order to navigate a situation effectively and efficiently.

As a result, if a situation calls for creativity, it is important to block that path of least resistance in some way. A paper by Ella Miron-Spektor, Kyle Emich, Linda Argoe, and Wendy Smith in a 2022 issue of Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes suggests one way of blocking this path of least resistance in group creativity.

They suggest that there are two factors that can come together to promote creativity. The first is that teams need to embrace contradictions when generating creative ideas rather than choosing a trade-off between them. For example, when designing a product, there is often a trade-off between expense of the materials and design and the performance of the product.

A designer might opt to create a luxury product that is high in price and performance or an economy product that is low in price and performance. But a creative team that embraces contradictions might seek new materials that provide an improvement in performance while keeping prices low.

In order to do this work of embracing contradictions, though, teams must also be motivated to think carefully about the problem rather than just going with the first idea they think of. The researchers suggest that the ideal combination for creativity requires both an orientation to embrace contradictions and the motivation to think deeply about the problem.

They tested this possibility in two studies. Participants were placed into teams of three people and given a design problem to make a prototype for a creative but affordable car using parts from a building set. To simulate the expense of the car, each part had a price associated with it.

The researchers manipulated both people’s orientation to contradictions as well as their motivation to think about the problem. They influenced people’s orientation to contradictions through instructions. Some groups were encouraged to embrace the contradictions they saw rather than deny them. Other groups were just told to review different perspectives without suggesting that they embrace the contradictions.

They manipulated people’s motivation to think in different ways in different studies. In one study, participants given high motivation to think were told they would be interviewed about their team strategy after the study and that they would watch a video of their brainstorming and be asked to comment on it.

Knowing they would have to justify their responses was expected to create high motivation to think carefully. The control group was not told about any interviews. A second study manipulated motivation to think through instructions that either asked participants to review and understand opposing perspectives or simply said that successful teams look for compromise.

The creativity of ideas was assessed by independent raters who examined how novel and useful the ideas were. This is a standard way of evaluating the creativity of the ideas people generate. Consistently, the most creative ideas were generated by those groups who had been asked to embrace contradictions and had a high motivation to think about the ideas.

All of the other conditions had lower and roughly similar levels of creativity. One of the studies also had raters look at the group dynamic and assess whether all the group really elaborated their ideas by discussing them and explaining their usefulness. The groups that embraced contradictions and were motivated to think were more likely to elaborate their ideas than those in the other groups.

This research suggests that contradiction can be a fruitful source of creative ideas. Contradictions can be used as a motivation to seek a new way of resolving a conflict rather than just compromising. However, putting in the effort to really embrace a contradiction requires being motivated to think through ideas carefully rather than just reaching a quick compromise and moving on. Ultimately, creativity requires effort, and so teams that are asked to be creative need some incentive to want to do that work.

Agree? Disagree? No opinion? Regardless, drop a comment if you so choose and  let me know.

Key points

  • Most thought follows a path of least resistance and is not creative.
  • Embracing contradictions can be a fruitful path for creativity.
  • Teams embrace contradictions only when they are motivated to want to think deeply about a problem.

Thanks to these sources for supplying the information on which this blog post is based.

References

Miron-Spektor, E., Emich, K. J., Argote, L., & Smith, W. K. (2022). Conceiving opposites together: Cultivating paradoxical frames and epistemic motivation fosters team creativity. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 171, 104-153.

Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

 

Hopefully making a ruckus, one blog post at a time!

Be sure to check out my other blog, Joe’s Journey, for a different kind of playground for creativity, innovation and inspiring stuff.

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