Study Shows We “Undervalue and Underutilize” Persistence in Creativity

lightbulb-336193_640It’s time to test your creativity: In 2 minutes, generate as many original ideas for things to eat or drink at a Thanksgiving dinner as you can. Now make a prediction: how many more creative ideas do you think you’d be able to come up with in another 2 minutes? Try it: see how many more original ideas you can generate. How did your estimate compare to the actual number? How did the value of persisting compare to your expectations?

In an article just published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Northwestern University researchers Brian Lucas and Loran Nordgren used this test to show that “persistence is a critical determinant of creative performance and that people may undervalue and underutilize persistence in everyday creative problem solving,” they write.

In other words, creativity seems like something that should just happen. But it’s not. Creativity is the result of hard work.

Here’s the evidence in numbers: When Lucas and Nordgren tested college students on the Thanksgiving dinner task, they found that students generated an average of 21.79 ideas in 10 minutes of brainstorming. Then students estimated that if they had 10 more minutes, they’d come up with an average of 9.83 new things to eat for Thanksgiving. But when they actually tried it, they generated, on average, a whopping 15.04 new ideas.

Not only had they underestimated the power of persistence, but the ideas generated while persisting were more creative than those in the first set. (It makes sense in the lab and in life: maybe the first things that come to mind are obvious, less creative ideas, and it takes persistence to push through this low-hanging fruit into new territory?)

Let’s take it a step further. Do we globally underestimate the value of persistence, or just underestimate its value for creativity?

To test this question, the researchers divided participants among six tasks – three that required creativity (like generating slogans for a hamburger and fries) and three that didn’t (like doing a word search). It turned out that people grossly underestimated the value of persistence on the creative tasks and only slightly underestimated the value of persistence on non-creative tasks. Again, one very important piece is that only in creative tasks, not only the quantity but also the quality of the work increased during persistence. (People didn’t find longer words in the search, but their burger-and-fries slogans were more creative.)

Then the researchers worked with organizers of the sketch comedy festival (creatively…) named SketchFest to test the creativity of professional and serious-hobbyist comedians. Just like the Thanksgiving dinner test, they gave comedians a prompt and asked them to generate ideas, in this case offering set-ups like, “Four people are laughing hysterically on stage. Two of them high five and everyone stops laughing immediately and someone says ____.” (An example answer was, “…and that is how the Glue brothers became joined at the palm.”)

Again, subjects brainstormed, predicted the power of persistence, and had a second go at the task. And again, these trained comedians working in their area of expertise underestimated the power of persistence in generating creative ideas; they thought persistence would result in fewer ideas than it did… and their ideas when persisting were more creative than their first ideas. It’s not just newbies presented with an abstract task whose creativity benefits from persistence: creative professionals undervalue persistence, too.

Across this series of studies, the result is the same: We think that creativity is the result of a magic lightning strike, but creativity really comes from hard work. Creativity isn’t given, it’s earned.

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One Response to Study Shows We “Undervalue and Underutilize” Persistence in Creativity

  1. Casi says:

    This is why I try to make a few minutes to write everyday, and when I find that I’m not I do things like find “classes” online that will help “force” me to write.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the intersection of persistence and creativity. The fact that persistence means that you get more creative is just more reasons to keep writing, even when you think you’ve gone as far as you can.

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