Evidence-based guide on creative thinking in the times of the coronavirusUncategorized
Reading time: 4 minutes
As a psychologist and a researcher, I decided to assemble an evidence-based overview of how the pandemic possibly influences our creative thinking. How can we keep solving problems creatively in the times of the coronavirus? How to think outside the box and keep making a difference, when the world has turned into chaos?
Creative thinking is a mental activity. So first of all, how does the current situation influence the state of our minds? One option is that you’re no longer wasting your time commuting and you’re not seeing the people you hate. So you thoroughly enjoy the current situation. In this case, don’t read this guide. 🙂 Another option is that you are not crazy worried about the pandemic, but it’s in the back of your mind. Plus, you still need to solve many problems. The result is that sometimes you run out of energy and become overwhelmed. Does this sound familiar? Then let’s consider what it could mean psychologically.
Too many things to avoid…
It seems possible that the coronavirus pandemic forces us to avoid different kinds of crappy things. Becoming sick, failing important exams, missing your loved ones – these and many more are all the things to avoid during the lock down. Avoidance motivation can be activated by threatening situations, such as a financial crisis or a threat of losing a job. While this can be useful when your life is in danger, it can mess up with your creative thinking.
Avoiding messes up with creativity
A few studies have shown that avoidance motivation hurts creativity compared to approach motivation (striving for the good things). But how can you steer someone into avoidance motivation in a research setup? I’ll give you a few examples from a series of cool experiments conducted by Marieke Roskes and colleagues (2012). In these studies, participants had to:
- avoid losing time (or in the contrasting approach motivation condition, try to gain time);
- miss as few words as possible (or find as many words as possible);
- lead a mouse out of a maze away from an owl (or towards a piece of cheese).
These studies showed either no influence on creative thinking or a negative influence on the originality of ideas, the number of generated ideas (fluency), and the diversity of ideas (flexibility). Similar results with the cheese and owl manipulation on originality of ideas were found by Lulu Liu and colleagues (2017).
Keep up your creativity
What does it mean to us? And how can we keep solving problems creatively, if we are often reminded of all the things to avoid? Researchers studied a few factors that might help. In experiments conducted by Marieke Roskes (2012), avoidance was as good as approach when participants had an additional push to solve the creative task (e.g., they believed that higher creative performance would be useful for another task). Other research suggests that avoiding may even increase your creativity if your work is engaging and inspiring and if your goals are not completed. Altogether, these are suggestions from scientific articles  that I found:
- don’t work under time pressure and tight deadlines
- think about WHY generating creative ideas will be useful
- set clear goals for your creative thinking
- structure your tasks beforehand
- avoid inconsistencies, unexpected or counterintuitive information
- keep your energy levels high by taking breaks and doing enjoyable activities
- use your creative thinking for the topics that are truly engaging and inspiring
- imagine yourself in a future situation where everything turned out in the best possible way.
What works best?
To make sure that I give you the most accurate and up-to-date advice, I asked Marieke Roskes about the most efficient ways to maintain creative thinking in the times of the coronavirus.
Unfortunately, to my knowledge, there is very little evidence of successful ways to reduce the negative effects of avoidance motivation, especially when it comes to applied studies. Experiments show that keeping in mind the reasons why creativity is important (what exactly do we need to achieve or solve?) may help, as well as trying to reduce stressors and distractions to a minimum,
explains Marieke. But she also warns:
These studies are all conducted, however, with interventions that are likely to only evoke mild levels of avoidance motivation. In the current pandemic, people may experience much stronger avoidance motivation. Based on the far from imperfect data I would guess that it would be smart to prioritize – decide what is really important and focus on that, leaving less crucial tasks and goals for later.
Do you find this advice helpful? Has anything been particularly useful when it comes to thinking outside the box to make a difference? 🙂
 Surprisingly, in one of the two studies, avoidance motivation led to higher originality than approach motivation. Importantly though, in this study participants were also informed that their score would be or won’t be compared to the scores of others (depending on the experimental condition). In my opinion, even mentioning the comparison with others creates a different mindset (higher self-awareness?). Perhaps this leads people to invest more effort. Marieke Roskes and colleagues found similar effort-related effects.
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