The Effects of Constraint on Creativity

The Effects of Constraint on Creativity

"An idea not only has to be unusual, it also has to be good. It has to work. It has to solve a problem."

-Caneel Joyce

Go on, admit it. New ideas make you uncomfortable. It’s okay. It’s not you. It’s your human nature.

Apparently, long ago when we were all running around in loincloths, being afraid of the new provided distinct advantages. The new might just bite your head off, or poison you. The remnants of this instinctive, fear-based response are still around today. Psychologists call it our “anti-originality bias.”

We learned about this when we sat down with Dr Caneel Joyce, recently. Caneel’s doctoral thesis, The Blank Page Effect, examined the effect of constraints on creativity — a subject we’re cross-examining pretty hard right now and will go into more in the future — and she’s a font of wisdom on creativity in general.

Now, those experienced with evaluating new ideas will already have figured out how to ignore that initial flinch from the unfamiliar. In fact, they’ve learned to embrace it. Particularly Challenger brand owners, the very definition of whose job it is be as original as they dare.

But if you’re working with people who haven’t had the chance to develop an instinct for originality, whether above you, or below, it’s well worth introducing them to the idea of the anti-originality bias before you evaluate creative work. Far too many important and original ideas have been killed by a once necessary self-preservation reflex that has little value in the modern world — a world that in many ways is struggling to reinvent itself in order to save itself.

It’s interesting that an instinct that initially developed to save us, now is holding us back. The nature of evolution, of progress itself, is original ideas being told ‘yes, this is different, but it works.’ I hope that as a species we’re developing an originality bias now. There’s actually plenty of evidence for that in the stories presented in The Challenger Project.

Mark is the eatbigfish partner based in San Francisco and co-author of A Beautiful Constraint. His interest and expertise lies in challenging ideas and making something out of nothing. Follow Mark @markcbarden