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.Share