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Through teaching, research and outreach, ILR generates and shares knowledge to solve human problems, manage and resolve conflict, establish best practices in the workplace and inform government policy.

Creativity Cliff Illusion: ILR Research

A group of workers participate in a creative idea session.

Individuals believe their creativity wanes over time, but new research co-authored by Brian Lucas shows that people’s creativity, on the whole, remains constant, or actually improves, as they work on a project.

“In today’s economy, most work requires some amount of creativity and problem-solving,” Lucas said. “Even the most average worker at the most boring widget factory generates creative solutions when faced with equipment malfunctions, logistical errors, grumpy clients, problematic employees and initiatives to cut costs or increase safety. Given this, it is important for workers to understand how their ability to generate ideas unfolds over time. This knowledge allows them to make informed decisions about how much time and effort to invest into creative work – to keep going when there are creative ideas left in the tank and to stop when they have truly exhausted their ideas.”

In The creative cliff illusion, published in August by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, the authors say there is a “fundamental disconnect between people’s beliefs and the reality of how creativity emerges over time. … We refer to this misprediction as the creative cliff illusion.”

Across eight studies, Lucas and co-author Loran F. Nordgren, of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, tested whether people understand their own creativity. 

The duo used a range of studies in which participants were asked to find creative solutions for a problem. Some tasks lasted just a few minutes, while another ran over the course of five days. In some instances the participants were familiar with the subject matter, including one study in which they were asked to work on a personal project, while the final study saw alumni of The Second City improv comedy school participating in a cartoon captioning contest. Participants were asked to predict their creativity, but in one instance, they were asked to retrospectively rate their creativity. Additionally, in one study the authors tested whether knowing about the creative cliff illusion would weaken its effect.

Lucas and Nordgren compared people’s beliefs against their actual creative performance. They found that while people’s creativity stayed the same or improved over time, “people’s beliefs did not match this reality. We consistently found that people expected their creativity to decline over time.”

According to the Lucas, “It is difficult to anticipate how creative your ideas will be over a certain period of time. You may hit an inspirational hot streak and come up with amazing ideas, or you may not. So when people are asked to predict how creative their ideas will be, they tend to rely on a source of information that is easier to anticipate: how many ideas they will generate. As with most things requiring physical or mental energy, idea productivity tends to decline over time. So, people think their creativity fades because they associate that decline in the quantity of ideas they generate with a decline in the creativity of the ideas they generate, even though this is not the case.”

To combat this in the workplace, Lucas suggests that managers allow employees to gain experience by doing creative work, which will allow them to naturally observe that they are able to generate creative ideas for longer periods. Or, if the worker’s role doesn’t require creativity, he suggests implementing a strategy like 3M’s program that allows employees to use 15 percent of their paid time to pursue their own creative ideas. Another recommendation would be to pair workers with low creative experience with those that have strong creative experience, with the hope that the experienced worker can pass on insights about the creative process to the less experienced worker, either explicitly or tacitly.

“The creative cliff illusion is, at the end of the day, an illusion, or an inaccurate belief,” Lucas said. “One way to address the problem is to correct the belief.”

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