Experimental Discoveries and Theories on Creative Thinking

Is the human imagination limited? Address this issue by critically evaluating experimental discoveries about creative thinking.

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Creativity is a difficult phenomenon to define and there has been vast speculation given to this definition. Is creativity defined by the walls of the Louvre museum, by the compositions of Mozart or by the inner workings of the mind of a two year old child playing with building blocks? It is hard to say, however, creativity is generally agreed to be the ability to produce work that is both novel (i.e. original, unique) and appropriate (i.e. useful, adaptive concerning task constraints) (Sternberg & Lubart, 1999). Like creativity, the definition of imagination is ambiguous as is the relationship between creativity and imagination. In some cases, imagination is used as a direct synonym for the act of engaging in creative thought, where being imaginative is synonymous with being creative (Gaut and Livingston, 2003). According to Michael Beaney (2005), imagining means thinking of something that is not present to the senses, but also thinking of something that may not have actually happened or that may not actually be true.

Some psychologists believe this topic to be too subjective to be examined and defined by experimentation and psychological observation (Sternberg & Lubart, 1996). Many within the area of psychology believe that creative thinking arises from specific thought processes (Amabile, 1996; Csikszentmihalyi, 1996; Eysenck, 1993) while others view creativity to be a product of the same thought processes that drive our ordinary activities (Perkins, 1981; Weisberg, 1980, 1986, 2003). Both theories suggest, however, that every person has the capacity to be creative.

This essay will look at the work of the human imagination in everyday life by describing and evaluating the following topics on creative thinking: counterfactual thinking, design fixation and functional fixity and structured imagination. It will look at the purpose and the functions proffered by such topics as well as the limitations they expose with reference to experimentation.

Counterfactual Thinking

Counterfactual thoughts arise when we think about what might have been or ‘if only’ thinking as we make judgements on mental representations of past events for example, tragic life events, lucky chances and lost opportunities. Counterfactual thinking can allow people to learn from experience and mistakes as people generate imaginary possibilities of past events (Byrne, 2002). They appear to play a role in emotional processes such as guilt (e.g., Miller & Gunasegaram, 1990) and regret (Gilovich & Medvec, 1994) as well as cognitive activities such as creativity (Roese, 1994). Counterfactual thinking is pervasive; it features prominently in everyday thinking, (Byrne, 2002). However, counterfactual thoughts expose regularities and limitations in the way people attempt to mentally ‘undo’ the past.

The Temporal Order Effect

Take the temporal order effect as an example. This refers to the way people tend to undo the most recent event in a temporal sequence of independent events (Segura, Berrocal & Byrne, 2002). Miller & Gunasegaram (1990) investigated this idea with the construction of a hypothetical scenario:

Imagine two individuals (Jones and Cooper) who are offered the following very attractive proposition. Each individual is asked to toss a coin. If the two coins come up the same (both heads or both tails), each individual wins $1,000. However, if the two coins do not come up the same, neither individual wins anything. Jones goes first and tosses a head; Cooper goes next and tosses a tail. Thus, the outcome is that neither individual wins anything.

88 undergraduate subjects were presented with this scenario with 86% predicting that Cooper would experience more guilt and 92% predicting that Cooper would be blamed more by Jones than vice versa if a loss occurred. However, there are two equally possible alternatives which would result in winning; Jones tossing a tail to match the toss of Cooper and Cooper tossing a head to match the toss of Jones. Subjects were asked which of these alternatives comes more readily to mind: (a) Jones tossing a tail; (b) Cooper tossing a head. 89% of the subjects chose option (b), supporting the idea of temporal order effect and suggesting that humans are limited in the mental representation of such a scenario.

Segura, Berrocal & Byrne (2002) further investigated the temporal order effect by examining if the temporal order effect occurs for sequences of four events as well as for sequences of two events. Here, two versions of a temporal scenario were constructed: in one version, the outcome was a product of two events and in the other, the outcome was a product of four events. A between subjects design was used in which 300 undergraduate students were presented with one of four accounts of the scenario. Participants were asked how the situation could have turned out differently with their choice of altered events being the measured quantity. In the two event sequence, 63% of participants’ chose the last event over the first. In the three accounts of the four event sequence, 39%, 33%, and 26%, participants chose the last event, suggesting it was only the most chosen event in one account. While there is room for more research here, this experiment still highlights limitations in our imagination and ability to make mental representations of different events.

It is noteworthy, however, that the temporal order effect is not unchanging. Work done by Byrne, Segura, Culhane, Tasso, & Berrocal (2000) suggests that the temporal order effect can be eliminated in certain scenarios. Work done by Walsh and Byrne (2004) also suggests that the temporal order effect can be reversed. However, the uniformity of counterfactual thinking in general is not eliminated as the majority of subjects still choose the same outcomes. There would appear to be regularities in the human imagination as most people tend to change the same things.

Design Fixation and Functional Fixity

Design fixation is defined as a blind adherence to a set of ideas or concepts limiting the output of conceptual design (Jansson & Smith, 1991). In other words, it is an inability to create an object that is different from its traditional design. While this can serve useful in the production of objects that are useful and convenient with which we are familiar, it reveals further restrictions in our imagination and creative thinking abilities. Jansson & Smith (1991) carried out a series of experiments which examined the hypothesis that design fixation is an obstacle in the design process. One of these experiments saw thirty-five mechanical engineering students carry out the task of designing a disposable, spill-proof coffee cup. They had forty-five minutes to complete the task and were instructed not to include a straw or a mouthpiece. The fixation group were initially shown a drawing of what not to include while the control group was not shown a drawing. Fixation subjects showed less creativity, flexibility and originality than the control group, suggesting that the drawing shown induced design fixation. While this was a small sample, they carried out two other similar experiments, one with 25 subjects and the other with 31 subjects and yielded similar results. To further support the idea of design fixation, these three experiments were then carried out on a group of 13 professional engineers who performed as the above subjects had performed; highlighting the restraining influence that design fixation, our existing knowledge, has on the human imagination.

Functional fixity refers to an inability to find a function for an object that is different from its traditional function. While functional fixity allows us to use objects for their intended purpose, this knowledge can limit humans in their ability to solve problems. Duncker’s (1945) candle problem gives support to the idea of functional fixity. Here, participants were faced with a goal of mounting three candles side by side at eye level on a door with the use of three small pasteboard boxes containing matches and some tacks. This task saw subjects fail to use the boxes outside of their function of holding the items. Adamson (1952) furthered this experiment by introducing a control condition where the boxes were empty, 29 subjects were assigned to the experimental group and 28 to the control group. This saw 86% of participants in the control condition solving the candle problem with just 41% of the experimental group solving the problem.

Research carried out by Maier (1931) also gives support to the phenomenon of functional fixity. This saw 61 participants faced with the challenge of tying two cords that were hanging from the ceiling together. A particular solution was desired and the experiment was not stopped until this solution was achieved either by the participant alone or with help from the experimenter. This solution involved attaching a weight to one of the strings using the objects provided in the room to create a pendulum. Results saw just 39.3% of subjects solving the problem alone with 37.7% solving the problem with help and 23% unable to solve the problem after help had been given. The data highlights the constraint that functional fixity applies to human imagination in its role in problem solving.

Structured Imagination

Ward (1994) suggested that the human imagination is structured in that it is restricted by knowledge and experience, similar to that shown by design fixation and functional fixity. While our knowledge of concepts and categories can aid our everyday thinking and thought processes, it can also restrict our creative thinking abilities. Ward (1994) carried out five experiments on 391 undergraduate students in an attempt to examine their ability to exceed specific categorical information to create a novel representation of that category that would be appropriate in an imaginary setting. In one experiment, the subjects were told to imagine a visit to another planet that is very different from earth, to imagine finding an animal there and to draw a front and side view of it. Ward measured the extent to which subjects drawings were different or similar to generalised creatures from science fiction literature. Ward found that subjects did not vary in their inclination to include appendages and sense organs but did vary in the number and type of appendages and sense organs included. Even professional science fiction writers were found to be constrained by basic characteristics of known categories.

Bredart (1998) further supported this idea by examining the characteristics subjects included in drawings of imaginary creatures from other planets. The majority of participants included the same surface features and functions found on human faces in their creations while also preserving symmetry. When a human feature was not included, such as an eye or a nose, often a novel structure was created to carry out the same function. When given the task of drawing child aliens, subjects showed human child similarities such as larger foreheads and smaller chins. It would seem that our category of ‘living things’ causes us to make assumptions in the way that aliens would move through the environment or sense the environment. Here, it would appear that subjects are relying heavily on their knowledge of existing categories in the creation of new cases. It suggests that knowledge constrains our creativity.

Ward & Sifonis (1997) examined and compared the impact of three different conditions on the way 105 psychology students generated imaginary extra-terrestrials. 31 subjects were asked to draw creatures that were wildly different from Earth animals. 34 subjects were instructed to draw alien animals without any special instructions. Both groups preserved symmetry and produced animals with standard senses and appendages but the first condition included more novel variations. Another 40 subjects were asked to imagine and describe things that might live on another planet without being asked to draw or to only consider animals. 75% of this group developed creatures with standard senses and appendages. Again, it is suggested that humans find it difficult to generate new ideas without the influence of existing concepts.

Ward, Patterson, Sifonis, Dodds, and Saunders (2002) again examined and compared the impact of three different conditions on college student’s ability to generate fruit from a different planet. Group one was asked to draw a fruit from a different planet, group two was asked the same but told to be as creative as possible and group three was asked to draw fruit from a different planet and to use their wildest imagination and not to feel bound by what fruit is like on earth. Many participants in each group used at least one Earth fruit, resulting in a fruit that was less original than those who did not use an Earth fruit. Participants showed a tendency to rely on Earth fruit, that which was readily accessible. The result held across all conditions suggesting that it is difficult to avoid the influence of highly accessible category information.

Evaluation and Conclusion

It is valid to suggest that creativity and creative thinking is limitless when discussing Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Mozart’s symphonies and a child’s first drawing. However, on analysis of the above topics, the data suggests and supports the idea that human imagination in its role in everyday life, in everyday thinking, is limited and met with constraints. It is limited by what we know already as suggested by design and functional fixity and the work done on structured imagination. It is limited by our thought processes as we mentally try to ‘undo’ the past and make judgements on past events in counterfactual thinking.

The topics that have been dealt with in this essay have been backed up with different degrees of evidence, with some experiments being replicated and others being further supported by the work of other psychologists. There is little criticism to be found in the available literature and few holes to be picked in the experimentation. However, creativity and imaginative thinking is still a small area in psychology and there is room for further speculation and research.


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