Intuitively it seems like the more resources we have available to us, the more tools and opportunities we have to stretch our creative wings. Not so, claims the results of a new study – it’s scarcity, not abundance, that promotes creativity. The more stuff we have, the less creative we are.
Researchers from the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School and the University of Illinois conducted six experiments to test the effects of having more versus having less in terms of creativity. The pivotal dynamic is what the study authors call a “constraint mindset” – a mode of thinking activated by having less. The greater the constraint mindset, the more creatively a given person will make use of their resources (a conclusion not too far off from “necessity is the mother of invention”).
“As the Western world becomes more affluent, I wanted to know how a sense of abundance affects creativity, because it’s creativity that moves society forward,” said Ravi Mehta, a professor of business administration at the U. of Illinois and lead study author. “New inventions and innovations — they all come from creativity. So how does an abundance mindset affect creativity? What we found is that abundant resources may have a negative effect on creativity. When you have fewer resources, you use them more creatively.”
The researchers were specifically looking at how consumers make use of products when they have less or more resources available to them. In our product-saturated state, we have little incentive to creatively maximize what’s available — an outcome that makes even more sense when you compare affluent and poor countries.
“If you look at people who don’t have resources or only have limited resources, they actually end up being more creative with what they have,” Mehta said. “If you go to a poor country and see how they solve problems by repurposing older products, it’s super-innovative.”
The results also make sense in an (admittedly irritating) “older generation rags on newer generation” sort of way. With instant digital gratification available to us at any moment of the day or night, what role does creative inspiration play? When kids (of any age) have bottomless pre-fabricated imagination on tap from video games and smartphones, where’s the need for creating something newly imagined?
I know, those are grating arguments, but studies like this one remind us that they make more sense than we’d like to admit. And while it’s true that every generation has had this criticism in one form or another of what they see coming next, ours is the first era so close to digital immersion. Forty years ago television was being blamed for a loss of creativity, but that was just a thin slice of pie compared to what’s happened since. Just ten years ago people didn’t walk around with eyes glued to a little box in their hand. We’re clearly moving in the direction of ever greater immersion, and that has very real effects.
The study authors cite an analysis of the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking performance data over the past five decades (a reliable test of creative thinking) showing that IQ scores have steadily increased since 1990, but creative thinking scores have significantly decreased. Perhaps not surprisingly, those results are especially evident for the age group spanning five to ten years old – ages that traditionally saw the burgeoning of imagination. Our kids may be getting smarter (relatively speaking) but creatively speaking they have less and less need to be imaginative.
“Once we become used to not being creative — to being merely passive consumers — it seems that the creativity muscle begins to atrophy, which does not bode well for future generations,” Mehta added.
That is, unless we want future generations to merely fill the role of functionary consumers. Hopefully that isn’t a choice we’re making by default.