How distractions facilitate creative problem solving

October 1st, 2008 - 3:40 pm ICT by IANS  

Washington, Oct 1 (IANS) You spend hours slaving over a hopelessly insoluble problem, but give up in sheer disgust and then find that within minutes your have done it. A new study led in part by Kellogg School of Management’s Adam Galinsky, suggests that unconscious thought results in creative problem solving via a two-step process.

According to Galinsky and fellow psychologists Chen-Bo Zhong from the University of Toronto and Ap Dijkstererhuis of Radboud University Nijmegen, distractions may be helpful in coming up with creative solutions to a certain problem, but must be followed by a period of conscious thought to ensure that we are aware of those solutions.

The researchers conducted two experiments to test their idea. In the first experiment, 94 subjects participated in a remote-association test (RAT), which tests for creativity.

Participants were presented with three words (a triad) and were asked to come up with a fourth word that is linked with all three words. For example, if presented with the words cheese, sky and ocean, the correct answer would be blue (blue cheese, blue sky, blue ocean).

Subjects were shown nine very difficult triads (but were instructed not to solve them yet) and were then divided into groups. For five minutes following the RAT, participants were either concentrating on the triads they had just seen (the conscious thought group) or engaging in a test completely unrelated to the RAT (the unconscious thought group).

Following the five-minute interval, all of the subjects participated in a lexical decision test. During this test, subjects were shown sequences of letters and had to indicate as quickly as possible if the sequences were English words or not.

The sequences presented included answers to the RAT triads, random words and non-words. Finally, subjects were again shown the RAT items and had to write down their answers.

The second experiment involved 36 subjects and had a similar set up to the previous experiment, although the RAT triads presented were much easier to solve compared to those in the first experiment, according to a release of Association for Pyschological Sciences.

The results showed that in the first experiment, during the lexical decision test, members of the unconscious thought group had much faster responses to letter sequences which were answers to RAT items, compared to the conscious thought group.

However, when it came time to solve the RAT problems, both groups had similar results. In the second experiment (using an easier set of RAT triads), the conscious thought group had more correct RAT answers compared to the unconscious thought group, but there was no difference in response time during the lexical decision test.

“Conscious thought is better at making linear, analytic decisions, but unconscious thought is especially effective at solving complex problems,” said Galinsky and his co-authors.

These findings were published in the September issue of Psychological Science.

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