Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Book Review: Practical Ways to Become More Creative

• July 06, 2012 • 9:10 AM

In Innovation Generation, Roberta Ness presents a blueprint for scientists and others who are striving to be more creative.

“Innovation Generation: How to produce creative and useful scientific ideas” By Roberta Ness (Oxford University Press) $29.95

Reviewed by Paul Silvia, associate professor of psychology, University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Some of science’s best ideas hide in plain sight: they seem obvious, even fatuous, but they have surprising implications. In the 1950s, J. P. Guilford, a founder of modern creativity research, wondered what would happen if he told some people to “be creative” while they were working on creativity tasks. He gathered a sample of adults and had them come up with unusual uses for common objects and write titles for short stories; half were told to try to come up with creative ideas. Not surprisingly, telling people to try to come up with creative, clever, and original ideas resulted in ideas that were much more creative, clever, and original.

This research sounds inane, perhaps, but it has surprising implications: if merely telling people to try to be creative makes their ideas better, then how much control do people have over the seemingly mystical process of creativity? Can creativity be learned or trained?

Enter Roberta Ness’s Innovation Generation: How to Produce Creative and Useful Scientific Ideas. A workshop in a book, Innovation Generation uses ideas from the study of creativity training to cultivate scientific innovation. The notion of training creativity might seem odd, but a lot of studies show that people can learn strategies and habits that cultivate creative thought.

Ness’s methods are distilled into the quirky acronym PIG In MuD:

• Phrase a question based on interest, observation, and knowledge. Instead of jumping aboard a faddish trend, people should choose a research problem based on their passion, experience, and expertise.

• Identify the frames and find alternatives. Making progress often depends on viewing a problem from a different angle. The problem of obesity, for example, is typically framed as a problem of personal willpower. Finding alternative frames—such as obesity as a problem of families and neighborhoods, not of individuals, or obesity as a result of the macroeconomics of food—will suggest provocative directions for new research.

• Generate all possible solutions. People tend to settle on the first idea that comes to mind because it feels intuitive and natural. But people should engage in divergent thinking, an approach that requires generating as many solutions as possible, including the implausible, unusual, and bizarre. Weird ideas serve as foils that throw the useful ideas into relief.

• Incubate. Taking a break from a problem and letting it simmer on the mental back burner seems to foster insights and creative breakthroughs. Cultivating hobbies and taking vacations are thus part of the innovation process.

• Meld your single best idea back into the process of normal science. Science has a lot of good ideas that don’t pan out. Researchers must thus evaluate their best idea using the methods and practices that other scientists in their field will find persuasive.

• Disseminate your innovative finding. An innovative idea won’t stick if people don’t hear about it. By cultivating public-speaking, writing, and sales skills, researchers can promote their innovation in the market of ideas.

The chapters walk the reader through these steps. Early chapters focus on identifying schemas, mental frames, and cognitive biases—the rut-diggers and boxmakers that make it hard to come up with fresh ideas. Later chapters describe how to overcome these constraints, formulate good questions, and develop an idea’s potential. And the end of the book discusses social and cultural aspects of innovation, such as attracting collaborators and persuading the field to adopt an innovation.

With its interesting stories and offbeat exercises for the reader, Innovation Generation has grab. But will the book make you more innovative? In the first chapter, Ness points out that her PIG In MuD approach is empirically grounded. With groups of science graduate students, the training program that inspired the book caused gains of 200 to 400 percent on standard assessments of creative thought.

Such findings make a scientist perk up, but readers will ultimately have to take Ness’s word for it. The book doesn’t describe her evidence or cite a paper that does, which seems like bad form for a book aimed at scientists who conduct research. Nevertheless, prior work on creativity training suggests that the ideas work—although probably not in the range of 200 to 400 percent—so the book would be a good way for a creatively thwarted scientist to spend a few inspiring evenings.

Roberta B. Ness (2012). Innovation generation: How to produce creative and useful scientific ideas. New York: Oxford University Press. 262 pp. $29.95.

Paul Silvia
Paul Silvia is an associate professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

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

Recent Posts

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

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.


October 21 • 4:00 PM

Why the Number of Reported Sexual Offenses Is Skyrocketing at Occidental College

When you make it easier to report assault, people will come forward.


October 21 • 2:00 PM

Private Donors Are Supplying Spy Gear to Cops Across the Country Without Any Oversight

There’s little public scrutiny when private donors pay to give police controversial technology and weapons. Sometimes, companies are donors to the same foundations that purchase their products for police.


October 21 • 12:00 PM

How Clever Do You Think Your Dog Is?

Maybe as smart as a four-year-old child?


October 21 • 10:00 AM

Converting the Climate Change Non-Believers

When hard science isn’t enough, what can be done?



October 21 • 8:00 AM

Education Policy Is Stuck in the Manufacturing Age

Refining our policies and teaching social and emotional skills will help us to generate sustained prosperity.


October 21 • 7:13 AM

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.


October 21 • 6:00 AM

Fruits and Vegetables Are About to Enter a Flavor Renaissance

Chefs are teaming up with plant breeders to revitalize bland produce with robust flavors and exotic beauty—qualities long neglected by industrial agriculture.


October 21 • 4:00 AM

She’s Cheating on Him, You Can Tell Just by Watching Them

New research suggests telltale signs of infidelity emerge even in a three- to five-minute video.


October 21 • 2:00 AM

Cheating Demographic Doom: Pittsburgh Exceptionalism and Japan’s Surprising Economic Resilience

Don’t judge a metro or a nation-state by its population numbers.


October 20 • 4:00 PM

The Bird Hat Craze That Sparked a Preservation Movement

How a fashion statement at the turn of the 19th century led to the creation of the first Audubon societies.


October 20 • 2:00 PM

The Risk of Getting Killed by the Police If You Are White, and If You Are Black

An analysis of killings by police shows outsize risk for young black males.


October 20 • 12:00 PM

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.


October 20 • 11:00 AM

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.


October 20 • 10:00 AM

Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.


October 20 • 8:00 AM

Big Boobs Matter Most

Medical mnemonics are often scandalous and sexist, but they help the student to both remember important facts and cope with challenging new experiences.


October 20 • 6:00 AM

When Disease Becomes Political: The Likely Electoral Fallout From Ebola

Will voters blame President Obama—and punish Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections—for a climate of fear?


October 20 • 4:00 AM

Coming Soon: The Anatomy of Ignorance


October 17 • 4:00 PM

What All Military Families Need to Know About High-Cost Lenders

Lessons from over a year on the beat.


October 17 • 2:00 PM

The Majority of Languages Do Not Have Gendered Pronouns

A world without “he.” Or “she.”


October 17 • 11:01 AM

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.


Follow us


My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

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.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

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.