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

October 24 • 2:00 PM

A Letter to the Next Attorney General: Fix Presidential Pardons

More than two years ago, a series showed that white applicants were far more likely to receive clemency than comparable applicants who were black. Since then, the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study, but the pardons system remains unchanged.


October 24 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Middle School Math Teacher?

Noah Davis talks to Vern Williams about what makes middle school—yes, middle school—so great.


October 24 • 10:00 AM

Why DNA Is One of Humanity’s Greatest Inventions

How we’ve co-opted our genetic material to change our world.


October 24 • 8:00 AM

What Do Clowns Think of Clowns?

Three major players weigh in on the current state of the clown.


October 24 • 7:13 AM

There Is No Surge in Illegal Immigration

The overall rate of illegal immigration has actually decreased significantly in the last 10 years. The time is ripe for immigration reform.


October 24 • 6:15 AM

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.


October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.


October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


October 22 • 4:00 AM

For Preschoolers, Spite and Smarts Go Together

New research from Germany finds greater cognitive skills are associated with more spiteful behavior in children.


Follow us


Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

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