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The Science Of Why Scarcity Makes Us More Creative

Being surrounded with ready-made solutions to problems can inhibit our creative growth.

The Science Of Why Scarcity Makes Us More Creative
[Top Photo: Flickr user Jessica Sheridan]

The rise of mass consumption has driven worldwide economic growth for decades. But does it help our creative growth?

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According to a new study, the answer is no. When we stop buying new things, we look at what we already have in new ways and come up with new uses for products we own. In other words, scarcity drives creativity. When we aren’t surrounded with ready-made solutions to problems, we have no trouble coming up with our own.

This finding may surprise precisely nobody working in any artistic field. This make-do-and-mend mentality is the way our grandparents–and in some cases parents–approached the world, ranging from jam-jars used as drinking glasses to cigar-box guitars.

Flickr user Carlos Pacheco

The study, co-authored by Illinois University professor of business administration Ravi Mehta, set out to investigate the link between resource availability and consumer creativity. “While scarcity has been a pervasive aspect of human life,” says Mehta in the paper’s abstract, “people in modern industrialized societies take resource availability for granted. Consumerism and over-acquisition have become the order of living and abundance has emerged as the norm, especially in the first world societies.”

Mehta and his co-author Meng Zhu conducted six experiments to determine how creativity varies under conditions of scarcity. These ranged from the effect of just writing about scarcity before building toys from Krinkles building blocks (Stickle Bricks to older readers), to full-on riddle-style puzzles like this one:

The participants were shown a picture containing several products on a table: a candle, a pack of matches, and a box of tacks, all of which were next to a wall. Participants’ task was to figure out how to attach the candle to the wall by using only the objects on the table, so that the candle burns properly and does not drip wax on the table or the floor.

For the answer, you can check the published paper. In all the experiments, the results showed that people are more creative when they are forced to make the best of a situation, or to come up with alternative uses for objects with specific uses. (This is called functional fixedness, and is “defined as a cognitive bias that limits a person to using an object only in the way it is traditionally used.”)

Flickr user celinecelines

The results make intuitive sense. When a creative professional is given a brief with tight constraints, they will likely thrive, whereas if the brief allows “anything” they will flounder, now even knowing where to begin. Given a problem with scarce resources, the human mind will twist and mull until it has a solution. This creativity is probably our species most important feature.

The study concludes that the flip side of this is also true, that abundance inhibits creativity, and cites several published works on the matter. These claim variously that “the centrality of material possessions hinders intellectual and spiritual development,” that “modern mass production gives rise to the harried leisure class,” and that “overconsumption might lead to the failure of complex and wealthy societies,” and even that “sophisticated technology can usurp human motivation and skills.”

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We not only thrive when resources are scarce, then, but we actually require this kind of challenge. You could think of it as a mental version of the flabby feelings you get when you forego your normal, regular exercise routine. It’s certainly a lot more rewarding and satisfying when you come up with something by yourself, even if your invention is a bit of a kludge. Now we have one more reason to buy less and declutter our lives.

About the author

Previously found writing at Wired.com, Cult of Mac and Straight No filter.

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