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How Constraints Force Your Brain To Be More Creative

When we have less to work with, psychologists have found that we actually begin to see the world differently.

How Constraints Force Your Brain To Be More Creative
[Photo: pchyburrs/Getty Images]

For decades, the dominant view among psychologists was that constraints served as a barrier to creativity. Anybody who spends a short time working under a confining bureaucracy, dealing with a micromanaging boss, or sitting in a classroom that teaches to the test can grasp the appeal of this argument. But it isn’t the whole story.

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Patricia Stokes is a Columbia University psychologist and an expert in the science of creativity. In one experiment she conducted back in 1993, rodents were forced to press a bar with only their right paws. Eventually, they not only learned to adapt to that constraint, but they figured out how to press the bar in more ways than a group that had free use of their limbs. This has come to be called “little ‘c’ creativity”—a form of creativity not focused on producing creative works but rather on solving practical problems through new uses and applications of resources. And it’s this form of creativity that tends to get short shrift.

We tend to think of creativity as something artistic—the quality that produces masterpieces. But it’s actually an important part of just getting everyday stuff done. It’s what allows a programmer to complete her first line of original code, a product manager to identify a new market for an existing product, and an elementary-school teacher to find an entertaining way to teach subtraction. And when it comes to situations as different as these, constraints seem to improve our performance.

The Bubble Wrap Test

In a 2015 study, Ravi Mehta at the University of Illinois and Meng Zhu at Johns Hopkins University examined how thinking about scarcity or abundance influences how creatively people use their resources. The researchers thought that by highlighting resource scarcity, they could reduce people’s natural tendency to use what was available to them in conventional ways.

To test their predictions, the researchers ran five experiments. In one, they started by randomly dividing 60 undergraduate participants into two groups. Mehta and Zhu then instructed the first set of subjects to write a brief essay about growing up having scarce resources, while the second set wrote about growing up having abundant resources. Then the researchers presented both groups of subjects with an actual problem their university faced.

With a recent move of its computer lab, the school had 250 bubble-wrap sheets and wanted to find a use for them. The experimenters provided a sample of the material, then asked them to come up with a plan for how to use the bubble wrap. Afterward, participants completed a survey to measure the different ways they approached the challenge.

The professors then hired 20 judges to assess the novelty of the suggested ideas. The judges, blind to whether participants belonged to the scarcity or abundance group, scored the proposals. And lo and behold, the scarcity group came out on top for their creative uses for bubble wrap.

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How Constraints Shape Our Sense Of The World

The question was why: What about having fewer resources seems to lead people to view them more expansively? With abundance, Mehta and Zhu concluded, people simply have no incentive to use what’s available to them in novel ways.

Our environments, in other words, either impel us to see things differently or they don’t. That implies that creativity is in many ways situational, not some inborn faculty or personality trait. When people face scarcity, they give themselves freedom to use resources in less conventional ways–because they have to. The situation demands a mental license that would otherwise remain untapped.

Seen in this light, resource abundance can actually be counterproductive. Our problems, challenges, and opportunities may become more manageable with constraints that direct us to make the best out of what we have. Without constraints, the research suggests, we tend instead to simply retrieve exemplary use cases from memory; we typically sit on a chair, so that’s how we think of chairs.

That functional fixedness can prove a real cognitive roadblock, causing us to see resources only as what they appear to be on the surface, or what they’ve been in the past. We follow the path of least resistance, which is helpful for letting us conserve mental energy by turning instinctively to commonplace ways of thinking.

With constraints, things unfold quite differently. We dedicate our mental energy to acting more resourcefully. If you ask someone to design or build a product, you might get a handful of good ideas. But if you ask someone to design or build it while sticking within a tight budget, chances are you’ll get much better results. In fact, that’s precisely what a team of researchers found when they examined how people design new products, cook meals, and fix broken toys—budgets significantly increased how resourceful people were in responding to these challenges, leading to better results.

So while you may not think of your quarterly budgeting process as a hotbed of creativity, it may set the stage for some innovations you wouldn’t expect.

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This article is adapted from Stretch: Unlock the Power of Less—and Achieve More Than You Ever Imagined by Scott Sonenshein. Copyright © 2017 by Scott Sonenshein. It is reprinted courtesy of HarperBusiness, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.