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Thinking Creatively: Just Add Milk

• February 23, 2012 • 12:19 PM

Shaking up everyday rituals — even the order of preparing a breakfast dish — may be a way to stimulate innovative thinking.

Want to boost your creativity? Tomorrow morning, pour some milk into an empty bowl, and then add the cereal.

That may sound, well, flaky. But according to a newly published study, preparing a common meal in reverse order may stimulate innovative thinking.

Avoiding conventional behavior at the breakfast table “can help people break their cognitive patterns, and thus lead them to think more flexibly and creatively,” according to a research team led by psychologist Simone Ritter of Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands.

She and her colleagues, including Rodica Ioana Damian of the University of California, Davis, argue that “active involvement in an unusual event” can trigger higher levels of creativity. They note this activity can take many forms, from studying abroad for a semester to coping with the unexpected death of a loved one.

But, writing in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, they provide evidence that something simpler will suffice.

The researchers describe an experiment in which Dutch university students were asked to prepare a breakfast sandwich popular in the Netherlands.

Half of them did so in the conventional manner: They put a slice of bread on a plate, buttered the bread and then placed chocolate chips on top. The others — prompted by a script on a computer screen — first put chocolate chips on a plate, then buttered a slice of bread and finally “placed the bread butter-side-down on the dish with the chocolate chips.”

After completing their culinary assignment, they turned their attention to the “Unusual Uses Task,” a widely used measure of creativity. They were given two minutes to generate uses for a brick and another two minutes to come up with as many answers as they could to the question: “What makes sound?”

“Cognitive flexibility” was scored not by counting how many answers they came up with, but rather by the number of categories those answers fell into. For the “What makes sound?” test, a participant whose answers were all animals or machines received a score of one, while someone whose list included “dog,” “car” and “ocean” received a three.

“A high cognitive flexibility score indicates an ability to switch between categories, overcome fixedness, and thus think more creativity,” Ritter and her colleagues write.

On both tests, those who made their breakfast treat backwards had higher scores. Breaking their normal sandwich-making pattern apparently opened them up; their minds wandered more freely, allowing for more innovative thought.

A second group of students watched an actor make the sandwich. Half saw him do it in the normal, expected way; the other half watched as he made it backwards.

In their case, however, there was no significant difference in scores on the subsequent cognitive flexibility test. Simply watching someone act in an unexpected way apparently doesn’t cut it–you have to actually participate to see the benefits.

The researchers argue that these results, and those of a second, related experiment using virtual reality, have several practical implications. For one thing, they support arguments in favor of relaxed policies toward immigration.

Previous research showed that periods of immigration have been historically followed by exceptional creative achievement,” they write. “Our findings suggest a potential explanation: Immigrants bring new customs and ideas that may act as ‘diversifying experiences’ for the local population, and thus may enhance creativity via cognitive flexibility.”

The larger lesson may be that creativity — the value of which is increasingly recognized by organizations of all kinds — can be boosted in surprisingly simple ways. Stimulating inventiveness through sandwich making? That’s thinking outside the lunchbox.

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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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