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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.

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