Monday, February 23, 2015

Sweating rhymes: Stress and creativity

"I've lost the flow" Oh no oh no oh no oh no oh no. My mouth had run dry, but more importantly so had my flow. I had agreed to take part in a "present your research in a 3-minute, engaging talk for a general audience" event, and had decided to set myself apart by rapping. After hours of practice under the spotlight I cracked through 50 seconds of rhymes before hitting a memory block. "I've lost the flow" I announced aloud to the crowd. (Thankfully I wasn't trying to play a load of savage guitar solos at the same time or no doubt I would've choked 10 seconds in).

Painted into a corner by the stagelights and the attentive audience behind them, I had to keep going, but with the rhythm gone, I spoke in prose, with the very structure of the talk coming apart as my nerves shredded the talk to sentence salad.

After having put something creative together oneself, presenting it to the world as a performance can be nerve-racking. But notwithstanding that creative performance itself can be stressful (particularly in front of the baying mob), what impact may stress have upon creativity?

Kenneth Hammond had some interesting things to say about stress and creative thought. As I was saying previously in this blog, two different types of thought (one rapid/automatic, the other slow/sequential) may be involved in creative thinking. Hammond suggested that stress may shift us from one form of thinking to another-if this shift leads us to a style of thought better suited to the task at hand, then creativity may result. He gives the example of a firefighter fleeing a fire where simply outrunning the fire (the standard procedure) wouldn't work. The firefighter used intuitive thinking by setting a small fire and putting it out, thereby leaving the burnt area without fuel for the big fire he was running away from.

Conversely, I recall Billy Corgan mentioning how some days intuitive thinking would get him nowhere, so he would try going through chords step-by-step until he found a progression that sounded a bit different or interesting. When under time pressure to release new work, such step-by-step thinking would no doubt test anyone's patience, but may prove useful when the initial approch isn't working.

A new paper has found that stressors which are perceived as challenges (e.g. long working hours) are positively related to idea generation, whereas those which are perceived as hindrances (e.g. red tape) have a negative effect. The sample is interesting; staff from R&D departments, so people who are likely to be under pressure to be creative. It's unfortunate that an actual test of creative performance wasn't used-the methods are pretty much entirely questionnaire based. It's also unfortunate that by deciding which are stressors are good and bad in advance, and then asking people which of these they have experienced, then the appraisal of a potentially stressful event is ignored, even though this could be critical to how the event will impact upon the psychology (and physiology) of stress.

But, I will admit, dropping the flow on stage is likely to be regarded as stressful by almost all people.

What was cool about this paper was that they also asked people about the organisational innovation climate (again, I could nitpick about the specifics, such as "sufficient resources" being a sub-group of questions on this.) What they found was that hindrance stressors had a serious negative effect on the benefits of a pro-innovation working climate, with the generation and implementation of new ideas suffering when employees were up against office politics that blocked creative output. There seems to be some conceptual overlap here, as some of the hindrance stressors themselves are part of the organisational culture-it could be that some companies hinder as much as they help. I'll let you speculate on which departments help and which departments hinder ;)

Ren, F. & Zhang, J. (2015). Job stressors, organisational innovation climate, and employee's innovative behaviour. Creativity Research Journal, 27(1), 16-23.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Book review: "Predictably irrational" by Dan Ariely

Time for some behavioural economics! It's a topic that has interested me for some time, having studied psychology and economics as my Bachelor's. Finally had a chance to catch up on Dan Ariely's "Predictably Irrational" a very accessible book about accessible but often counter-intuitive research.

Ariely deals with a wide array of human behaviour; he discusses how arousal can alter thought processes (or at least self-presentation) by studying response to questions on sexual behaviour while masturbating v. a non-masturbation control (the latter is more typical of psychology labs, the former more typical of psychology conferences). Elsewhere our difficulty in evaluating the value of things is up for grabs, particularly when we don't have the yardstick of a similar thing with which to compare. This discussion includes not just items for purchase but also potential romantic partners, as discussed at the end of the TED talk in the link.

A lot has been written in behavioral economics about the differences in how people perceive gains and losses, but one particularly interesting point Ariely makes is how people's economic decision-making can be distorted in response to goods/services which are free (or FREE! as he invariably writes it). This is particularly the case where one has a choice where not everything is free, but one of the options has a FREE! component. He gives a lovely concrete example. Step 1: he offers kids some small chocolates and says they can exchange a small chocolate for a larger chocolate bar. Surprise surprise, they make the exchange; so far, so rational. HOWEVER, he then gives some kids the small chocolates and says they can either have a large bar for FREE! or have two large bars in exchange for one small chocolate. The latter option gets you a bigger chocolate profit, but a majority of kids just can't say no to something FREE! Tragically, undergrad students seemed to fall for this as well (ffs, I hope they were hungover/dieting).

One of the enviable aspects of Ariely's work is he seems to get to do a lot of field work. To see if ordering behaviour is affected by the choices of those around you, he acts as a waiter at a local inn. The manager gives it the green light, but says if Dan doesn't serve a customer within 30 seconds of entering the premises one of the regular staff will swoop in first, so people aren't kept waiting too long. Classic. Perhaps my envy is misplaced; even in a more lab-based environment psychology is the kind of science that fosters interesting occurrences, particularly if you do things like assess people's response to social stress.  

Like most behavioural economics, Ariely doesn't agree with the way most economists assume people are rational, disspassionate decision-makers. Indeed, he suggests that the so-called "standard" economic model is guilty of a kind of naturalistic fallacy, in that it assumes that if people don't save for their pension, or avail of better deals etc., then they must be acting in their own best interest. One might take Ariely's less rosy view of people's decision-making as advocating a more pateralistic state, and indeed some behavioral economists advising on policy have started to advocate what has been called "soft paternalism", much to the chagrin of a well-loved celebrity academic.

I think behavioural economists can go a little hard on standard economists; theories that oversimplify individuals' cognitive skill or insight into their own preferences may nonetheless explain aggregate behaviour. They can sometimes go a bit hard on human's thinking patterns too; although mental shortcuts or heuristics can be flawed (and, as Ariely points, predictably-and thus exploitably- so), Gerd Gigerenzer and others have pointed out that heuristics can serve us quite well most of the time.

Regardless of whether you agree with much of what he says, this is a research book that turns its own pages. If interested in finding out more about Dan Ariely or even participate in his research (online surveys for the win), check out his website:

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Fiction review: "A Girl is a Half-formed Thing" by Eimear McBride

I was originally going to buy this at the same time I bought "Here are the Young Men" by Rob Doyle, but decided against it for whatever reason. (Maybe the counterpart names felt a little too obvious, hee hee). Doyle's book is well worth a read, putting you right in the nihilism and/or neuroses of its post-Leaving Cert Dublin characters, while still maintaining a fairly matter-of-a-fact style.

McBride's book makes an interesting contrast; the writing in "A Girl..." is like a character from Joyce's Ulysses telling a Patrick McCabe story. The stream of consciousness breaks off sentences and races through thoughts like Leo Bloom and the gang, coming close to the fighting-with-sentences seen in Finnegans Wake during one particularly tough scene towards the end. Adapting it for the stage couldn't have been easy. Unlike Joyce, however, literary allusions, puns and linguistic games are not so frequent in this place (save a prayer or two); we're straight to the guts here.

Whereas Doyle's protagonists (teens doing their Leaving Certificate around 2003) are almost exactly my contemporaries, Eimear McBride's protagonist is a little bit older (maybe 5-10 years), one for whom the old guard of Catholicism were still getting their final dig in. Although this broader cultural context hangs heavy over the book, the main incident in the plot revolves around two major interpersonal "issues": the double trauma of a terminally ill brother and an abusive uncle. As terrible as the former may be, the latter part of her story will probably trouble more readers for longer, obviously because of the manner of their relationship, but also because from a first person perspective we aren't offered a passive victim's voice. More broadly, if fiction can alter our social cognition, the unpredictability of the central character gave me pause for thought.

Indeed, I can't remember having such a strong emotional reaction to a book in some time. It's telling of the author's power and/or the easy life I've had that the petty cruelty of sibling and stranger, parent and grandparent seemed to rattle around the mind for a while after the book is put down, almost as much as the heavier stuff. One scene in particular, where the grandfather berates the protagonist's mother for the children's (and her own) perceived lack of religiosity, and the mother's subsequent acting out against her kids, was a time to put the book down and do something else for me.

Given its depth, it's the kind of book one would read again a few years down the road, probably wincing at how one interpreted certain aspects the first time around.