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Four Surprising Factors That Influence Creativity

Psychologists are finding connections between creative thinking and alcohol consumption, living abroad, and even your politics.

Four Surprising Factors That Influence Creativity
[Photo: Flickr user Don LaVange]

Some people–maybe even most of us–don’t think they’re creative. And while it seems anecdotally true, at least, that certain people are more creatively inclined than others, it’s no less the case that we can all train ourselves to think more creatively. The links researchers are uncovering between some activities and creativity may surprise you.

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1. Living Abroad

Researchers at Tel Aviv University, the Kellogg School of Management, and INSEAD have discovered that living abroad might do more than just broaden your cultural horizons–it may also contribute to making you a more creative thinker. The researchers conducted a series of experiments on MBA students and workers from 26 countries living in Europe and the United States. They found that those who were more deeply immersed in the cultures of their adoptive locales yet still maintained strong bonds with their home countries not only scored higher than others on tests of creativity, they also had greater professional success.

Certainly, each of these factors–creativity, cultural immersion, professional success–are difficult to quantify, and the experiences of MBA students might not match up with those of the general population. Nevertheless, those correlations make intuitive sense. In order to thrive in an unfamiliar country, you need to balance two divergent (and in some cases overlapping) sets of societal rules and expectations simultaneously.

Negotiating between the two not only demands many of the skills associated with creativity–like being able to find unusual solutions to complex problems–but that challenge is itself fertile ground for creative thinking. Coming into contact with new people and experiences forces you to make new connections and continuously shift your perspective.

2. Getting Tipsy

Science is finally starting to confirm what booze swillers have suspected (and in some cases, no doubt, drunkenly insisted) for centuries: That alcohol can be a lubricant to creative problem-solving.

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Ancient Greek symposiasts would have needed little convincing of what one psychologist’s research team at University of Illinois recently discovered. One group of social drinkers consumed enough alcohol to achieve a blood alcohol level of 0.07%, while a control group of social drinkers stayed sober.

Both cohorts were then administered Remote Associates Tests, a common tool used by psychologists to measure creative thought, and the intoxicated group outperformed the sober one, in terms of both accuracy and speed. (Perhaps less surprisingly, the intoxicated group also reported feeling more insightful.)

The researchers concluded that out-of-the-box thinking is actually facilitated by the diffused thought processes brought on by limited doses of alcohol. The team cautioned, though, that these creative benefits peak when subjects are tipsy, not outright drunk. Still, it’s something to raise a glass to.

3. Walking Around

The phrase “thinking on your feet” seems to have some basis in science after all. And contrary to what movies and cartoons might have you believe, pacing around a room isn’t necessarily a sign of nervous energy.

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Researchers at the Stanford Graduate School of Education found that walking may actually help stimulate creative ideas. Based on tests performed on a group of 176 college students, creative output appeared to increase dramatically when the subjects were walking as opposed to standing still or sitting down.

The study also found that the setting is irrelevant; the very act of walking is all that matters. Subjects were placed on treadmills, told to pace indoors, and take a stroll outside in the fresh air, and the results were similar in all three environments: Their creativity roughly doubled from when they were stationary.

The researchers encourage walking for creative inspiration but caution that it isn’t the best solution for every mental task. Those that require deep focus and analytical thinking are still best tackled sitting down.

4. Being A Liberal

Psychologist Stephen Dollinger has found that politically conservative people might be less imaginative than more liberal ones. According to his research, creativity relies on the sort of free-thinking more commonly found among liberals.

Dollinger administered a series of creative tasks to a group of 426 undergraduates and had each task evaluated by fine arts graduates and psychologists. Each respondent was asked a series of questions on topics like immigration laws, LGBT rights, the death penalty, abortion, etc. in order to establish where they stood on the scale of conservative to liberal. When the results of the creativity tests were matched up with the results of the political-affiliation tests, the most creative respondents tended to be more liberal-minded by a wide margin.

The results don’t suggest that since conservatism places greater emphasis on convention and precedent, conservatives may have more difficulty with creative thinking. Liberals, by comparison, might be more inclined to explore new ideas with less concern for established rules. Of course, there could be a number of other explanations for the correlation Dollinger uncovered, but it’s intriguing to consider how our political views might influence our thinking well outside the political sphere.

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Rohan Ayyar is a startup-focused marketer involved in creative content strategy, web analytics, and conversion optimization at E2M, a premium digital marketing firm. Follow him on Twitter @searchrook.