People who are inspired by risky acts are more creative: study
New research indicates that taking risks to progress can make people more creative in a lab setting.
“This research took place during a time when risk taking was heavily stigmatized in society,” said Steven Yu, assistant professor of psychology at Rutgers University, and the study’s lead author. “Yet with risk-taking comes the real possibility of realizing a tangible goal. When that happens, it’s exciting because it means the ability to add value to a group or society is at stake. This stress is often accompanied by a sense of achievement and intellectual dopamine release.”
To conduct the study, which was published in Psychological Science, researchers gave subjects a task and asked them to predict the likelihood that a corresponding set of objects would be found. Some subjects were told they were competing for a prize, while others were told they were competing for their team to win.
In one experiment, subjects were instructed to gather colored pencils in a blind competition. In another, the subjects were told they were competing in a physical competition—such as tying for the overall top spot on a skateboard championship board—but they were told that they’d earn a team prize if they won. The actual competition was a coin toss, and all of the objects came out in the exact same place.
In the final experiment, subjects showed greater ability to predict the distribution of objects if they were competing for a prize, such as a team trophy, as opposed to competing in a contest where it was unknown how many objects will be found. The stronger predictions suggested that people who compete for prizes in non-prize competitions are risk-taking persons, while those who participate in prizes are more creative people.
“When people compete for things, they’re taking action in a structured, predictable environment,” Yu said. “It’s kind of like life, a set piece game, where they’re moving chess pieces around and somehow they’re managing to predict where they’re going to move when the rook moves. Whereas for some, when they’re really tempted to do that, they’re more creative.”
Yu and his colleagues created a test to measure creativity in order to see whether this process involves risky behaviors.
During the test, subjects were asked to write down the most creative directions, including places, values, and even abstract items such as ideas and names. The experiment took place at a laboratory lab. If anything the distance across the table from the participants was smaller than usual, and the samples that had to be collected in order to complete the experiment were smaller, indicating that the test sought out risk-taking behaviors.
“When we’re controlling for creativity, we actually find that the most creative results are done in teams,” Yu said. “People tend to be more creative when they’re part of a team, which is true even for small tasks. We even found that this quality is more associated with higher scores for games that can’t be done alone.”
Yu said that this may help explain how creative and risky behaviors can coexist in the same student.
“It’s common for people to be more creative and risk-taking people, and find groups that encourage this behavior,” Yu said. “These studies imply that creativity is an associated behavior, and it’s OK. This type of creativity can coexist with this type of behavior.”
A variant of Yu’s work is currently being tested in high school science courses, with findings that indicate performance improves when students gamble to advance. Yu said that he wants to investigate further whether people learn in a different way when they’re given free reign.
“To be creative, you’ve got to be forward-thinking, and that really goes along with taking chances and imagining things,” Yu said. “We believe creativity is an associated trait, and you can’t live in a world without a few forms of creativity.”