Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Findings

steve-jobs-reflection

Mac with reflection of Steve Jobs in an iPhone 5. (Photo: Stefan Holm/Shutterstock)

Literally Touching Greatness Can Increase Your Creativity

• June 11, 2014 • 4:00 AM

Mac with reflection of Steve Jobs in an iPhone 5. (Photo: Stefan Holm/Shutterstock)

New research finds one type of “magical thinking”—the belief that ability can be transferred through touch—can actually work for some people.

Do you wish you were more creative? Would it help if you played Mozart’s piano, sat down at Dickens’ writing desk, or switched on Steve Jobs’ laptop?

If you’re the sort of logic-driven person who answered “Of course not,” then, no, it wouldn’t. But if your way of processing information is more intuitive, it just might.

That’s the implication of newly published research, which finds handling an object previously used by a highly innovative person can boost the creative output of some individuals, apparently by elevating their confidence level.

“This is the first paper to show that specific abilities can transfer through contagion,” write Thomas Kramer of the University of South Carolina and Lauren Block of the City University of New York. Their work is published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

The research is based on Daniel Kahneman’s notion that human behavior is guided by two distinct modes of processing information. System 1 is automatic and instinct-driven; System 2 is more rational and analytical. While everyone uses both methods at different times, “some individuals have strong differences in their preferences for using one system over another,” Kramer and Block write.

A struggling worker—especially one whose job requires creativity—might benefit by being given, say, a coffee mug that formerly belonged to the employee of the month.

To distinguish those who tend to rely on intuition from the more analytically driven, all study participants responded to a series of statements. On a one-to-five scale (“completely false” to “completely true”), they rated a series of statements such as “I am quick to form impressions about people” and “When it comes to trusting people, I can usually rely on my gut feelings.”

The first of their three experiments featured 194 university students who were given a standard creativity task in which they were presented with three words and then asked to come up with a fourth that related to all of them. (One set of words consisted of flake, mobile, and cone; the correct response was snow, which could modify each.)

To prepare for the test, participants were either given a set of physical papers containing tips and instructions, or instructed to read the same material on a computer screen.

Those presented with the papers were asked to sign their name on a line just below the signature of the previous person to take the test. Those who used the computer typed their name under that of the previous test-taker (who, in all cases, was actually fictitious).

The score of that previous test-taker was clearly visible to all. It was listed as either an impressive 19 out of a possible 20, or a pathetic three. After being exposed to how well or poorly their predecessor had done, each participant performed the test.

The results: Many people correctly solved more problems if the previous person had a high score rather than a low one. But, crucially, this effect was found only for a specific subset of individuals: Those who (a) tended to process information in an intuitive, System 1 way, and (b) actually touched the paper that had allegedly been handled by the previous test-taker.

These results were duplicated in the second experiment, in which participants were asked to come up with creative uses for a paper clip. In the final study, which was structured similarly, participants were additionally asked “how confident they were that they would do well.”

Once again, one specific group—intuitive thinkers who had physically touched documents used by a previous participant—displayed more creative ability if their predecessor had a high rather than a low score. The researchers further determined that increased confidence was a key factor driving the better performances.

The researchers note that their results may have “interesting and unexplored managerial implications for the workplace.” Indeed, they suggest a struggling worker—especially one whose job requires creativity—might benefit by being given, say, a coffee mug that formerly belonged to the employee of the month.

But while the practical implications of these findings remain to be demonstrated, they do suggest that folklore about physical contagion is not as silly as it seems. If it manages to boost your confidence, that brush with greatness may just rub off on you.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 26 • 4:00 PM

Turmoil at JPMorgan

Examiners are reportedly blocked from doing their job as “London Whale” trades blow up.


November 26 • 2:00 PM

Rich Kids Are More Likely to Be Working for Dad

Nepotism is alive and well, especially for the well-off.


November 26 • 12:00 PM

How Do You Make a Living, Taxidermist?

Taxidermist Katie Innamorato talks to Noah Davis about learning her craft, seeing it become trendy, and the going-rate for a “Moss Fox.”


November 26 • 10:28 AM

Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals’ actions pile up quickly.


November 26 • 10:13 AM

Honeybees Touring America


November 26 • 10:00 AM

Understanding Money

In How to Speak Money, John Lanchester explains how the monied people talk about their mountains of cash.


November 26 • 8:00 AM

The Exponential Benefits of Eating Less

Eating less food—whole food and junk food, meat and plants, organic and conventional, GMO and non-GMO—would do a lot more than just better our personal health.


November 26 • 6:00 AM

The Incorruptible Bodies of Saints

Their figures were helped along by embalming, but, somehow, everyone forgot that part.


November 26 • 4:00 AM

The Geography of Real Estate Markets Is Shifting Under Our Feet

Policies aimed at unleashing supply in order to make housing more affordable are relying on outdated models.



November 25 • 4:00 PM

Is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Doing Enough to Monitor Wall Street?

Bank President William Dudley says supervision is stronger than ever, but Democratic senators are unconvinced: “You need to fix it, Mr. Dudley, or we need to get someone who will.”


November 25 • 3:30 PM

Cultural Activities Help Seniors Retain Health Literacy

New research finds a link between the ability to process health-related information and regular attendance at movies, plays, and concerts.


November 25 • 12:00 PM

Why Did Doctors Stop Giving Women Orgasms?

You can thank the rise of the vibrator for that, according to technology historian Rachel Maines.


November 25 • 10:08 AM

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.


November 25 • 10:00 AM

If It’s Yellow, Seriously, Let It Mellow

If you actually care about water and the future of the species, you’ll think twice about flushing.


November 25 • 8:00 AM

Sometimes You Should Just Say No to Surgery

The introduction of national thyroid cancer screening in South Korea led to a 15-fold increase in diagnoses and a corresponding explosion of operations—but no difference in mortality rates. This is a prime example of over-diagnosis that’s contributing to bloated health care costs.



November 25 • 6:00 AM

The Long War Between Highbrow and Lowbrow

Despise The Avengers? Loathe the snobs who despise The Avengers? You’re not the first.


November 25 • 4:00 AM

Are Women More Open to Sex Than They Admit?

New research questions the conventional wisdom that men overestimate women’s level of sexual interest in them.


November 25 • 2:00 AM

The Geography of Innovation, or, Why Almost All Japanese People Hate Root Beer

Innovation is not a product of population density, but of something else entirely.


November 24 • 4:00 PM

Federal Reserve Announces Sweeping Review of Its Big Bank Oversight

The Federal Reserve Board wants to look at whether the views of examiners are being heard by higher-ups.



November 24 • 2:00 PM

That Catcalling Video Is a Reminder of Why Research Methods Are So Important

If your methods aren’t sound then neither are your findings.


November 24 • 12:00 PM

Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well….


November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.


Follow us


Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals' actions pile up quickly.

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.