Creativity is vital. It can generate new products, invigorate old ones, launch or enhance a brand and introduce efficiencies that increase the bottom line. But where does creativity come from, and how can it be harnessed?
The answer may be a dark one, says Professor Modupe Akinola, whose research examines how stress affects performance. Consider the archetypical artist-as-tortured-genius. “Vincent van Gogh was said to have painted some of his best known works, such as Starry Night, after some of the most trying events in his life,” she says. Akinola wanted to learn if there are personality characteristics that, when coupled with situational factors like mood, can enhance creativity. “If you make someone unhappy or stressed out,” she asks, “will he be more creative?”
Akinola worked with Wendy Berry Mendes of Harvard to answer this question. The researchers set up an experiment in which participants were asked to give a short speech about their dream job. The researchers measured levels of the hormone dehydroepiandrosterone-sulfate (DHEAS) in each participant and asked participants a series of scaled questions about their moods both before and after the speech.
In the last stage of the experiment, the participants were given glue, paper and colored felt and asked to make anything they wanted using those materials. Professional artists then evaluated how creative each collage was. (It may seem subjective, but the judges’ assessments were highly consistent and other research has validated the use of the process.)
The DHEAS measures taken before the speeches allowed the researchers to observe a factor specific to each individual participant that would provide insight into the relationship between personality and creativity — information that the pre- and post- self-reporting mood surveys could not reveal. Endocrinologists have long established that people with low DHEAS seem to be more susceptible to depression, so the DHEAS sample taken before the speech gave the researchers a sense of each person’s affective vulnerability, or how susceptible a person is to experiencing wide mood swings. Participants were also asked to self-report their moods, so the researchers had both subjective and objective baselines from which they could observe mood changes.
Prior research has shown that evaluative situations trigger different moods: being praised after an annual work review usually makes for a good mood while a critical review makes for a bad mood. When participants received positive feedback — smiles and nods — during their speeches, they reported feeling the same or better than before. For participants who received negative feedback like frowns and shaking heads during their speeches, they reported feeling worse compared to before their speeches. Self-reported mood changed very little for participants who received no feedback.
Overall, participants who received negative feedback were more creative than those who received positive or no feedback, their collages clearly reflecting, for example, deep attention to detail and the specificity required of creative work. Of this group, those who had the lowest DHEAS to start with — an internal rather than external factor — were the most creative of all. (A separate follow-up experiment confirmed that effort alone did not explain the differences between the most and least creative collages.)
These results confirmed that mood is a factor in creativity, and it can be manipulated. However, the most essential part of Akinola’s hypothesis supported by this study is that while external events like negative feedback or social rejection can play a role in prompting creativity, some people have biological presets that make them more sensitive and so, in some cases, more creative.
Moreover, while there appears to be a dark side to creativity, there may also be a bright side. Employees who are vulnerable to mood shifts are generally most effective on work that requires a good deal of scrutinizing, or on projects that demand vigilant attention to detail, or testing, selecting and rejecting ideas. Akinola and her colleagues suspect that different moods affect different types of creative processes and are exploring whether positive moods may provide the best prompts for problem-solving strategies that rely more on filtering or seeing the forest for the trees, for example, the way an analyst might take in the details about a firm’s financial and strategic condition before making a recommendation.
“These questions are important,” Akinola says, “because in business settings we often find ourselves in situations where we come out of an important meeting feeling really good or really bad. But then we need to work on whatever is next at hand.” Akinola says. “If creativity is affected by these mood-triggering situations, what is the best way to capitalize on that? There is no one-size fits all answer. We need to better understand these triggers.”
Modupe Akinola is assistant professor of management at Columbia Business School.