Menus Subscribe Search

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.

Sign up for the free Miller-McCune.com e-newsletter.

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add Miller-McCune.com news to your site.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

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

July 28 • 11:11 AM

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.


July 28 • 10:00 AM

Hell Isn’t for Real

You may have seen pictures of the massive crater in Siberia. It unfortunately—or fortunately—does not lead to the netherworld.


July 28 • 8:00 AM

Why Isn’t Obama More Popular?

It takes a while for people to notice that things are going well, particularly when they’ve been bad for so long.


July 28 • 7:45 AM

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.


July 28 • 6:00 AM

Hams Without Ends and Cats Tied to Trees: How We Create Traditions With Dubious Origins

Does it really matter if the reason for why you give money to newlyweds is based on a skewed version of a story your parents once told you?


July 28 • 4:00 AM

A Belief in ‘Oneness’ Is Equated With Pro-Environment Behavior

New research finds a link between concern for the environment and belief in the concept of universal interconnectedness.


July 25 • 4:00 PM

Flying Blind: The View From 30,000 Feet Puts Everything in Perspective

Next time you find yourself in an airplane, consider keeping your phone turned off and the window open.


July 25 • 2:00 PM

Trophy Scarves: Race, Gender, and the Woman-as-Prop Trope

Social inequality unapologetically laid bare.


July 25 • 1:51 PM

Confusing Population Change With Migration

A lot of population change is baked into a region from migration that happened decades ago.


July 25 • 1:37 PM

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.



July 25 • 11:07 AM

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.


July 25 • 10:00 AM

Shelf Help: New Book Reviews in 100 Words or Less

What you need to know about Bad Feminist, XL Love, and The Birth of Korean Cool.



July 25 • 8:00 AM

The Consequences of Curing Childhood Cancer

The majority of American children with cancer will be cured, but it may leave them unable to have children of their own. Should preserving fertility in cancer survivors be a research priority?


July 25 • 6:00 AM

Men Find Caring, Understanding Responses Sexy. Women, Not So Much

For women looking to attract a man, there are advantages to being a caring conversationalist. But new research finds it doesn’t work the other way around.


July 25 • 4:00 AM

Arizona’s Double-Talk on Execution and Torture

The state is certain that Joseph Wood’s death was totally constitutional. But they’re looking into it.


July 24 • 4:00 PM

Overweight Americans Have the Lowest Risk of Premature Death

Why do we use the term “normal weight” when talking about BMI? What’s presented as normal certainly isn’t the norm, and it may not even be what’s most healthy.


July 24 • 2:00 PM

California’s Lax Policing of the Fracking Industry Has Put the Drought-Stricken State in a Terrible Situation

The state’s drought has forced farmers to rely on groundwater, even as aquifers have been intentionally polluted due to exemptions for the oil industry.


July 24 • 12:00 PM

What’s in a Name? The Problem With Washington’s Football Team

A senior advisor to the National Congress of American Indians once threw an embarrassing themed party that involved headdresses. He regrets that costume now, but knows his experience is one many others can relate to.


July 24 • 11:00 AM

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that’s fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.


July 24 • 10:58 AM

How the Supremes Pick Their Cases—and Why Obamacare Is Safe for Now

The opponents of Obamacare who went one for two in circuit court rulings earlier this week are unlikely to see their cases reach the Supreme Court.



July 24 • 9:48 AM

The People Who Are Scared of Dogs

While more people fear snakes or spiders, with dogs everywhere, cynophobia makes everyday public life a constant challenge.


July 24 • 8:00 AM

Newton’s Needle: On Scientific Self-Experimentation

It is all too easy to treat science as a platform that allows the observer to hover over the messiness of life, unobserved and untouched. But by remembering the role of the body in science, perhaps we humanize it as well.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that's fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014

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