One of the creativity techniques more well-known is the storm of ideas, or brainstorming, in which a group of individuals gather to pitch ideas around a question. Despite its popularity, brainstorming has important limitations: several studies have shown that, in comparison to a group of isolated individuals (so-called “nominal group”), the brainstorming group can reduce the number of ideas contributed by individuals.
To explain this deficit of productivity, have been proposed various social mechanisms (such as compliance with the group, the fear of evaluation,…) and also cognitive (such as cognitive overload). Thanks to the wonderful blog of occupational psychology BPS Occupational Digest, I have found a study that investigates the role of fixation cognitive brainstorming, and if the fixation cognitive is responsible for the deficit of productivity of brainstorming sessions.
The fixing cognitive is the phenomenon by which exposure to an idea blocks the possibility of thinking of alternative ideas. The study, conducted by Nicholas Kohn and Steven Smith, is forming by three experiments.
In the first experiment, the subjects, college students, were either divided into groups of four to carry out a brainstorming session mediated by a chat; or isolated to work individually. The question we had to answer was “Make a list of ways to improve the Texas A&M University” (“List ways in which to improve Texas A&M University”).
The answers provided both by the group brainstorming as by the nominal group were grouped into broad categories by the experimenters, such as, for example, “Library”, “Security”, “Technology”,…
The results confirmed what we already knew: lI noun groups of isolated individuals produced more categories, and more ideas by category, groups brainstorming.
The second experiment is more interesting, since it was designed to investigate the role of attachment, cognitive. According to the authors, the fixing cognitive could be presented in one of two ways: by reducing the number of categories of ideas, proposals, or reducing the number of ideas within each category.
The subject of a new group were assigned individually to a partner to perform a brainstorming session mediated chat (the problem to discuss was the same: (“List ways in which to improve Texas A&M University”) . However, the companion was a collaborator of the experimenters, and their function was to manipulate the number of ideas that was presented to the subject in the chat window: these ideas are presented in a number between one and twenty, chosen from among the most common categories found in experiment one.
What are the results?: the more ideas presented the collaborator of the experimenters to the subject, the less innovative ideas proposed by the subject, and in fewer categories. However, the average number of ideas which the subject provided not affected. In other words: the subjects seemed to focus on a few categories, in which proposed ideas in a number of significant, but little novel. According to the authors, these results reflect the fixation cognitive in regards to the categories of ideas that the subjects were able to contemplate.
Why these results? As we said in the article, the explanation may reside in the semantic nature of the relationship between ideas: our concepts form a network of networks, connecting a function of its perceived significance; and, lto activation of a concept may foster the activation of the related concepts, so that you could lose the opportunity to reflect on other concepts peripheral to the network selected.
The third experiment I wanted to check if the fixing cognitive can palliate giving a break to the participants of the brainstorming. For this, we used the base of the second experiment, in the buddy of the experimenters provided ideas to the subject. You could find that the subjects generated a 86% more ideas and explored 57% more categories if it provided them with a break of five minutes, in which they had to work on a task not related to the session.
It is worth noting one of the conclusions of the authors: if the goal is to explore a few categories of ideas in depth, the brainstorming is the technique of choice; but if what is needed is to consider a range of more detailed categories, and novel ideas, you need to provide individuals a space for individual reflection.
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