Which Emotions Facilitate Creative Problem Solving?

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Emotion Quadrant Diagram Some problems can’t be solved by methodical, logical thinking, but rather they require insight to relate things in a non-typical way or see novel ways of using them. When our emotions are in a particular zone (as depicted in green on the diagram), we are better at solving problems requiring creative insight.

A simple example of a problem requiring creativity is the “candle task” in which a research subject is presented with a box of tacks, a candle, and a book of matches and asked to attach the candle to the wall (a corkboard) in such a way that it will burn without dripping wax on the table or floor. The subject is given a time limit, usually ten minutes, to solve the problem. Here’s the solution: the box is emptied, tacked to the wall, and used as a platform (candle holder) for the upright candle. This solution requires creativity because the subject must see the non-typical use of the box as a candle holder, and they must see the relationship between the box and the candle.

How does emotion impact a subject’s ability to solve this problem? Alice Isen, Ph.D, led a set of experiments that tested the effect of emotion on subjects’ ability to solve the candle task. She split subjects into four groups and induced a particular emotional mood in each group.  She put the first group into a positive mood by having them watch five minutes of a comedy film that consisted of television bloopers. She got the second group to feel negative by showing them five minutes of a documentary film depicting Nazi concentration camps. With the third group, she dampened their emotions having them view a five minute segment of a math film showing how to calculate the area under a curve. The fourth group had no emotional manipulation. After viewing the movies and prior to beginning the task, the subjects were questioned to ensure they felt the intended emotions. The subjects in the first group, with positive emotions, were roughly three times more likely to find the solution to the problem than were the subjects in the other groups (which didn’t differ substantially in their ability to find a solution).

These results suggest that people in positive, aroused emotional states have a greater ability to relate and integrate divergent material in a useful or reasonable but unaccustomed manner. Thus research suggests that positive emotions promote creativity. Why is this so?

Unfortunately, we don’t know for sure why this is true (note to readers: if you’ve seen compelling research that shows why, please share it). We do know that people in positive moods think more inclusively. In other experiments where subjects were asked to group objects, people feeling positive tended to group more disparate objects together than control subjects did, thus indicating that they saw more of the items as related. Also, people feeling positive tend to rate non-typical examples of a category as included in the category. For example, people feeling positive were more likely to consider elevator, camel, and feet as included in the category vehicle as compared to subjects in a control group. So we see that people who feel positive are more likely to see the relatedness between items or to see non-typical aspects of items that make them similar to others. This demonstrates their ability to think creatively. Thus, there may be something about positive emotions that facilitates seeing more aspects of objects or seeing objects more fully.

Even though we don’t yet know why it’s true, we have empirical evidence that there is a link between positive feelings and creative problem solving. A person who is feeling good will likely be more creative than others or more creative than she or he might be at another time. These results indicate that creativity, an important skill that is often thought of as a stable characteristic of a person, can be facilitated by emotional moods. Moreover, we can induce the optimal creative mood in ourselves and in our teams by self-managing emotions.

As we learn more from science about the incredible power of emotions in teams, we see reasons to adopt techniques beyond the ordinary. For more on shaping team emotions to increase creativity and performance, get notified of the upcoming book Primal Teams: Harnessing the Incredible Power of Group Energy or sign up for a monthly summary of articles.


About the Author:

Jackie Barretta is a thought leader sharing ideas on how to create a more just and peaceful world. She is also a CIO, and in this role she has led large organizations with hundreds of employees through challenging times and major transformations.
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  1. Koenig Philip  May 20, 2013

    Not much to add except very well done and wish you to be able to generously and quickly share that with all decision makers who would like to have an effective strategy and business development organizational level.

    That would hopefully all types of orgs…. governments, corporations, NGOs, banks, schools / academia, political parties, associations, etc…

    Maybe one day these stakeholders might even conclude that a community / region / country would benefit from your findings by actually living them very consciously !

    Good luck and if you need me to support you in doing that I am available …

  2. Lora Starling  May 21, 2013

    This is a fantastic article Jackie, thanks. I wonder with so much depression in the world if we are in danger of losing our creative edge and how do we maintain it? And of course brands certainly shape our emotions too.

  3. Jackie Barretta  May 21, 2013

    Lora, that’s a good point about losing our creative edge, and I think there’s a lot of that happening. From my perspective, the key is to learn to self-manage our emotions. We have to stay aware of them, shift to the positive and learn to process thru the negative. I’m actually teaching a workshop on this next month!

  4. Nanette Geiger  May 21, 2013

    Jackie thanks for this thought provoking article. This is important information for employers and leaders to grasp in the face of our changing economic landscape. Pertaining to your comments on people in a positive emotional state having a greater potentials in being creative, i.e., “research suggests that positive emotions promote creativity” – referencing Srinivasan Pillay, M.D. and CEO of NeuroBusiness Group, he indicates that a stressed brain tends to think in a very contracted way. Hearkening back to brain evolution and survival of the fittest needs wired in for fight, freeze or flee, a stressed brain functions in a pre-programmed way to survive. Positive emotion is by nature free from stress and therefore allows the individual to explore more novel solutions.

    I love this topic. I could talk about it all day. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Jackie Barretta  May 21, 2013

    Nanette, thanks for the reference to Pillay. I’ll take a closer look at his work. It makes sense that a stressed brain is occupied with survial which constricts its perception. However, in the research I cited, there’s still a question of why the positive, comedy watching group, did better than those who watched no film. It makes me think there’s something else going on with positive emotions, something that somehow opens the mind up to greater awareness.

  6. Harish Shah  May 21, 2013

    I agree with this. For the last couple of decades, the focus has been on positive thinking, but little attention has been drawn to the importance of focusing on positive feeling for effective performance, decision making or problem solving. Thinking and feeling are two different things. And how to achieve the positive feelings and maintain them, is a a question to ask.

    Your presentation/writing inspired me to articulate my own thoughts, but from the angle and for purpose of using Meditation, as a means to manage the mind, and through that our emotions, on my blog.



  7. Merooj Aghazarian  May 24, 2013

    (note to readers: if you’ve seen compelling research that shows why, please share it).
    I suggest, answer:
    Even the group with no emotional manipulation (fourth group) did not do better than negative mood group, or dampened mood group. Why?
    Could it be the creativity, does not blossom without environment/space in which it is seeded. They are interconnected. In another words,
    If the problem is not presented in an an environment which heightens/facilitate the possibility of the problem SOLVER creativity to arise (in this case: Positive group, by watching comedy), even normal people’s (Not manipulated) creativity stays dormant.
    (you can see parallel of creativity to sexuality, by observing arousal happening, NOT in negative, dampen, or normal mood, and it only happens in stimulated mood, in both environmentally and emotionally.)

  8. Todd  June 9, 2013

    Hello Jackie!

    Sorry, I sent you an email without coming to your website first.
    Humbly apologize..please forgive me.
    You sent me an email sometime ago regarding your thoughts and work in writing a book and you are doing just that.
    Good for you Jackie. A great accomplishment at that….
    I look forward to reading your efforts to help others.

    After reading your passage above, I will state that there is critical thinking that must take place with the candle exercise. Logic is not totally void.
    Of course there are some who will not critically think and rush to the end. That I know and have experienced several times in my life.

    Candle Exercise:
    OOh Fire, most of us have learned is no good without being controlled in some form or fashion so there may be some tentative “wait a minute” thinking / evaluation to next thought pattern that takes place with fire….consciously conducted as well as subconsciously conducted, sometimes not openly shared with others and sometimes not even with oneself. Just happens in the background of the mind.
    The brain loves and learns through Compare and Contrast, filter the past through what is coming into you now through sight, sound, touch, and smell prior to moving forward with activity, if you have time to do so.

    IMHO We humans when challenged with some puzzle do take time to perform logical tests of what we know and we do not know (humm this is new to me) through simple tests and trials, cerebrally (if there is such a word) we challenge the current reality within the mind first, compare and contrast what we see, think and feel and then by doing test and trial, with several iterations to boot.

    Thanks for sharing Jackie..
    Look forward to the Book.

    Todd McCann

  9. Nisha Ninan  June 16, 2013

    A strong business case on why employee engagement is key to innovation and creativity at the workplace !

  10. James Wiedeman  June 16, 2013

    Good stuff Jackie, and an informative “share”. Once again, I see a direct link between “being well” and the ability to overcome a challenge or obstacle. I would further submit that “innovation” is not always about something new. Its my belief that using “something” in a “new” way often results in beneficial outcomes. Thanks!

  11. Mark Wojtasiak  June 16, 2013

    Hi Jackie – great post, thanks for sharing. This is very interesting as I am curious to look into other stimuli that evoke positive emotion, and thus more creativity. I have often read that a walk in the middle of the work day, exercise, working remotely (change of setting) can all contribute to positive feeling (to Harish’s point) and thus, creative thinking. For me, it’s often listening to music at my desk, or breaking away from work related reading from time to time to consume other, sometimes more refreshing, content. Case in point 🙂 Any other ideas you can share is appreciated. Thanks again – Mark.

  12. Sambhav Desai  June 16, 2013

    At AliveMind, we have series of exercises for balancing emotions to facilitate Creative Problem Solving and we found LOVE to be most successful of all emotions. First, it is always – Love for KNOWING – having CLARITY – WHY you are doing it, followed by and HOW and ofcourse then – Love for what you are creating!

  13. Michaela Koch  June 16, 2013

    thanks for this Jackie. I posted it to my network.

    The evidence for leaders and managers about the importance of ensuring a positive work environment is so clear to those who choose to look.


  14. Peter Johnston  June 23, 2013

    Excellent piece. Interestingly the candle task is taught on our MBA course.

    I cross-referenced this mentally with Dan Pink’s Type X and Type 1 companies.

    In a Command and Control company the only person feeling positive is the boss. Even then his main mood is exasperation – why don’t these people do what I want!

    In a Type 1 company, everyone is empowered and thus is looking positively at opportunities and change, rather than at problems.

    I believe this has a massive effect on the effectiveness of that company.

  15. creative problem solving  July 15, 2013

    Fine way of telling, and nice post to take facts regarding my presentation subject matter,
    which i am going to deliver in institution of higher education.


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