Creative Problem Solving: Forget the Focus

March 27, 2012

by Robin Tricoles 

People have long suspected that creativity can be summoned with a glass of wine or a pint of beer, but science is just now confirming that suspicion. Cognitive psychologist Jennifer Wiley says alcohol enhances creative problem solving by reducing our ability to focus our attention on something. In other words, it diminishes what scientists refer to as our working memory capacity, or WMC.

“Working memory capacity is considered the ability to control one’s attention,” says Wiley, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “It’s the ability to remember one thing while you’re thinking about something else.” In the past, scientists have found that increased working memory capacity, or better attentional control usually leads to better problem-solving performance—when it comes to analytical problem solving. But the same cannot be said when it comes to solving problems that require creativity.

With that in mind, Wiley and her colleagues tested the effects of alcohol consumption on creative problem solving tasks. Most states consider a person intoxicated if his blood alcohol level is 0.08 or higher. “We found at 0.07 blood alcohol, people were worse at working memory tasks, but they were better at creative problem-solving tasks,” says Wiley.

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That’s because the alcohol helped study participants access remote ideas, ideas that develop through association not linear analysis. In fact, linear reasoning can keep people focused on ideas they think are important but really aren’t. 

For example, if Wiley asked you to tell her what word goes with the following: blue, cottage, Swiss. And you said, “cheese,” you’d be accessing your remote ideas, not linear ones. That is, you associated blue, cottage, and Swiss with cheese, a commendable and constructive thing to do.

“We have this assumption, that being able to focus on one part of a problem or having a lot of expertise is better for problem solving,” says Wiley. “But that’s not necessarily true. Innovation may happen when people are not so focused. Sometimes it’s good to be distracted.”

In other words, it can pay to loosen up and dial down our attentional control, our capacity to choose what one pays attention to and what one chooses to ignore.

But can one loosen up and dial down without a glass of wine or a pint of beer?

That’s what these results suggest, says Wiley.

In other research on creative problem solving in groups, theories suggest that groups whose members possess diverse skill levels; that is, varying levels of mastery or expertise, may be more likely to come up with “great things,”  says Wiley. To test this idea, she and her colleagues asked students with varied levels of mathematical skills to work together to come up with a formula.

“A lot of things happened,” says Wiley. “The low-skilled students learned more, they asked more questions,” she says. “And they made the high-skilled students think more deeply. So, the group did end up inventing their own formula.” 

Wiley also noticed that groups of three were more effective than groups of two at coming up with creative solutions. 

“In groups of two, we tend to be more polite, not to confront or ask questions,” Wiley says. “But when you respond to a question in a group of three, you’re not confronting, you’re speaking up for the whole group. So, it turns out that makes for a little more conflict, and good information comes out. In groups of two, people are looking for commonalities. Agreeing may get you through tasks quickly, but it doesn’t help solve problems in the long run.”

But here’s something else that can help your creativity: changing your routine—especially if you work on something that you usually don’t work on during your non-optimal time of day, a time when you tend to be drowsy. For example, if you normally write your novella between 8 and 10 each night, try writing between 5 and 7 one morning, and see what happens. Or if you like to brainstorm a little before lunchtime, see what happens when you try brainstorming during your morning shower instead.

“Sometimes the really creative stuff comes out when you’re having a glass of wine over dinner, or when you’re taking a shower” says Wiley.

Sleep, too, can be a gateway to problem solving. Tales abound about artists and artists coming up with some of their best ideas while inspecting the inside of their eyelids—or shortly thereafter—in the case of people being given a problem to solve. Those who were allowed to sleep after being exposed to a problem were more likely to come up with a creative solution than those who weren’t. 

There is also research suggesting that that aging fosters creative problem solving, says Wiley. That’s because older adults tend to be more easily distracted by seemingly extraneous information than younger adults. But it’s this very tendency to be distracted that allows older adults to take advantage of valuable information contained in what may only appear to be unrelated data.

So, aging turns out to be a good thing when you’re trying to come up with creative solutions to problems, says Wiley. “But no matter what your age, sometimes you have to pay attention to the sparkly, distracting things in order to solve a problem.”

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Jennifer Wiley is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Illinois, Chicago. She is a member of the Society for Text and Discourse, Cognitive Science Society, American Educational Research Association, Psychonomic Society, the Association for Psychological Science, and the American Psychological Association. To learn more about her research on creativity and problem solving, please visit http://tigger.uic.edu/~jwiley/.

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