Eureka! How Distractions Facilitate Creative Problem Solving

How many times have you spent hours slaving over an impossible problem, only to take a break and then easily solve the problem, sometimes within minutes of looking at it again? This is actually a common phenomenon, but until recently, the way that this occurs has been unclear. And surprisingly, the answer is more complex than simply having an “Aha!” moment.

Previous research suggests that both unconscious thought (i.e. being distracted) and conscious thought (concentrating on solving a problem) can lead to novel solutions and new ideas, but in very different ways. Psychologists Chen-Bo Zhong from the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto’s, Ap Dijkstererhuis of Radboud University Nijmegen and Adam Galinsky from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University have taken this idea one step further by suggesting unconscious thought results in creative problem solving via a two-step process: unconscious thought first produces solutions and then transfers these solutions into the conscious mind. Breakdown in either step can prevent the generation of creative solutions. This is much like the case of printing: when a printer is not printing calculations of a program properly, it is not always because the program is not working. Instead, the connection between the program and the printer may be severed. The authors conducted two experiments to test the idea that having access to an idea or a solution is separate from being aware of it and actually being able to use it.

In the first experiment, 94 subjects participated in a Remote-Association Test (RAT), which tests for creativity. In this test, participants are presented with three words (a triad) and asked to come up with a fourth word that is linked with all three words. For example, if presented with the words cheese, sky and ocean, the correct answer would be blue (blue cheese, blue sky, blue ocean).   Subjects were shown 9 very difficult triads (but were instructed not to solve them yet) and were then divided into groups. For 5 minutes following the RAT, participants were either concentrating on the triads they had just seen (the conscious thought group) or engaging in a test completely unrelated to the RAT (the unconscious thought group). Following that 5 minute interval, all the subjects participated in a lexical decision test. During this test, subjects were shown sequences of letters and had to indicate as quickly as possible if the sequences were English words or not. The sequences presented included answers to the RAT triads, random words and non-words. Lastly, subjects were again shown the RAT items and asked to write down their answers. The second experiment involved 36 subjects and had a similar set up to the previous experiment, although the RAT triads presented here were much easier to solve compared to those in the first experiment.

The results, which appear in the September issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, showed that in the first experiment, during the lexical decision test, members of the unconscious thought group had much faster responses to the letter sequences when they were answers to RAT items, compared to the conscious thought group. However, when it came time to solve the RAT problems, both groups had similar results.  In the second experiment (using an easier set of RAT triads), the conscious thought group had more correct RAT answers compared to the unconscious thought group, but there was no difference in response time during the lexical decision test.

The results of these two experiments indicate that while searching for answers, distraction may indeed be helpful in coming up with creative solutions, but raises important questions regarding the conditions under which these creative solutions will be transferred to consciousness, ready to be applied and used . The experiments also indicate that while distractions are more useful in solving difficult problems, when confronted with easier problems, it may be better to stay focused on finding the solution.  The authors note, “Conscious thought is better at making linear, analytic decisions, but unconscious thought is especially effective at solving complex problems.” The authors conclude, “Unconscious activation may provide inspirational sparks underlying the ‘Aha!’ moment that eventually leads to important discoveries.”

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