Has a teacher ever described you as “creative?” Have you ever been asked to provide examples of your creativity in a job interview? If so, you may have a fixed idea of yourself as more or less creative, based on your own personal experience and the feedback of others. But it turns out that’s probably not the way your brain works.

Measuring Creativity

Cognitive psychologists view creativity as a variable trait that can be measured on a spectrum, placing each of us on a scale as having a degree of creativity, rather than have or have not. The “alternative uses” test devised by John Paul Guilford measures “divergent thinking” by asking the subject to come up with as many uses of common objects as possible and then scoring the quantity and uniqueness of their responses. For example, if I gave you a rubber ball, a brick and tuba, your task would be to think of as many uses for each item as possible within – let’s say – five minutes. I would then compare your responses to answers provided by people in your age group or some other demographic comparison. The more uses you can find that are not mentioned by most of your peers, the more creative you are. (The more divergent your thinking.)

Manipulating Creativity

This test has been done thousands – maybe even millions of times since Guilford devised it in 1967 and is still considered relevant in the research today. Yet only recently has someone discovered how performance on the test can be manipulated, using the power of each subject’s brain. In their study, the Creative Stereotype Effect, Dumas and Dunbar wanted to see if they could produce a change in creativity as measured by the Guilford test. They asked participants to take the test under two different conditions:

  • Imagine you are an eccentric poet
  • Imagine you are a rigid librarian

It’s Not About Specific Roles – It’s About Stereotypes

The authors of the study went to great pains to apologize to librarians and insist that they do not think librarians are rigid and uncreative. I happen to know some very creative folks who are librarians and eccentric poets may be a bit over-rated where creativity is concerned. The point is that these stereotypes resonate with the subjects in the study. (College students) If we chose a different group of people, we might have used rock stars and accountants. The key is to select a stereotype that instantly creates a strong picture in the subject’s brain.

Your Brain Produces What You Tell it to Expect

When we ask people to see themselves as a stereotype, something amazing happens; their brains perform in a way that is consistent with the stereotype. If I imagine that I’m wildly creative, I will become more creative – at least long enough to score higher on the test. What Dumas and Dunbar have discovered is a specific application of the Expectation Effect. Our brains are hard-wired to predict the future. This is a core skill that has kept us alive over the ages. Expectations can influence school and job performance, social encounters, even political elections, so why not creativity? Let’s play with expectation for a bit and see if we can find some practical applications for the leader and learning professional.

Set the stage for the task at hand

This study suggests that if you want to stimulate divergent thinking, you should ask employees to see themselves as highly creative. Why not play with other stereotypes to enhance other desired behaviors? Would thinking like Gandhi make you more empathetic, or picturing yourself as Michael Jordan spark your competitive fire? While I’m not aware of any formal studies that go beyond the creativity stereotype, it makes sense that other variations might have similar results.

Teach people how it works – and the limitations

Teaching employees how their brain works gives them a tool they can use on their own. Once they recognize the power of their own expectations, they can summon the right mental image to drive success. It is equally important, though, to explain the limits of expectation. While imagining that I’m Jack Nicklaus right before my tee shot may indeed help me hit that golf ball a little farther, it does not actually make me a professional golfer. Expectation only goes so far. Hard work, training, practice, and natural ability all have a role in the total picture.

Develop your own powers of expectation

There is a proverb that goes something like this, “The shoemaker’s children have no shoes.” What it means is that sometimes the people who have the greatest access to something use it the least. As learning professionals, we’re often guilty of failing to use our own expertise to improve our work performance and our daily happiness. When was the last time you imagined your own success? Yet, I’ll be you’ve inserted something about expectation into at least one of your training programs at some point in your career. So why not train your brain to be more creative? Run your own version of the alternative use test and picture yourself as whatever wildly creative type is most meaningful to you. You might just surprise yourself.

And, I’m willing to bet – although I don’t think it’s been studied yet – that over time your brain will start behaving as expected.