Issue 96: Do Computers Cut Creativity? 🎨
Welcome to LSW!
Our article this week comes from a reader recommendation - many thanks to Scott! This week, we’re exploring creativity within virtual environments. Specifically, the article seeks to answer the following:
- Does communicating virtually help or hinder creative idea generation? What about idea selection?
We’ll also dive into an article that we previously covered, which aimed to understand which types of gamification are most effective for mobile learning.
Creativity & Virtual Communication
Published earlier this year in Nature, a set of studies sought to understand whether virtual communication inhibited creative processes in the workplace (Brucks & Levav, 2022). In the last few years, the workplace has been shifting from in-office to remote work (i.e., working from home). In fact, recent studies suggest that almost 80% of US employees would want at least one day per week to be “work from home” (Barrero et al., 2021). So, how does working remotely actually impact creative thinking and innovation?
Brucks & Levav (2022) investigated creativity in two parts. The first part of their study was in a laboratory setting, while the second part was a field experiment. In the laboratory experiment, adults in the United States were randomly set up in pairs. While in their pair, participants were instructed to generate “creative uses for a product for five minutes and then spend one minute selecting their most creative idea” (Brucks & Levav, 2022). Each pair was randomly assigned to either “in person” or “virtual.” In the “virtual” group. In the “in person” group, participants sat across from each other at a table, while the “virtual” group (see image) communicated via video conferencing (Brucks & Levav, 2022).
Idea generation was assessed by totaling the number of ideas, as well as the number of creative ideas. Selection quality was assessed by using the “creativity score” of the idea selected, as well as a “decision error score.” The decision error score was calculated by taking the difference between the top scoring idea and the idea selected (Brucks & Levav, 2022). In addition to creativity, researchers also analyzed the participants’ eye gaze and room recall. Both of these measures were to understand the impact of the environment and visual attention. In the laboratory room where the study took place, researchers placed five “expected props” (such as folders, a pencil box, etc.) and five “unexpected props” (such as a bowl of lemons, a skeleton poster, etc.), which allowed them to evaluate the “room recall” (Brucks & Levav, 2022).
Visually, virtual partners spent significantly more time looking at their partner and significantly less time looking at the room, alongside lower recall of unexpected props. The researchers found that “time spent looking around the room” and higher recall of unexpected props actually predicted creative idea generation and mediated the effect of modality. In short, the narrow visual focus that comes with virtual communication appears to inhibit creative idea generation (Brucks & Levav, 2022).
While the findings from the first study provided insight into the causes of virtual communication inhibiting creativity, researchers then conducted a field experiment to understand if the results were generalizable.
The field experiment took place as an “ideation workshop” for engineers, conducted at a company’s offices in Finland, Hungary, India, Israel, and Portugal (Brucks & Levav, 2022). During the workshop, engineering pairs had 45 minutes to one hour for idea generation prior to submitting a final selected idea. Across all five sites, results showed that engineers working virtually generated fewer ideas than in-person pairs; at the 3 sites with creativity scores, those working virtually also generated fewer creative ideas than in-person pairs (Brucks & Levav, 2022). Interestingly, although in-person teams “had a significantly higher top-scoring idea in their generated idea pool,” the selected idea was not significantly different from virtual pairs. This illustrates a potential advantage regarding decision quality for virtual pairs!
Overall, Brucks and Levav’s (2022) findings indicate that creative idea generation is inhibited when collaborating virtually compared to in-person, which was found to hold up in the laboratory setting and naturalistic workplace settings. The article itself is open access, so I encourage you to check it out below - there is an excellent “alternative explanations” section.
Lastly, I want to point to Horvát & Uzzi’s (2022) breakdown of this study, as they make excellent points! As a teaser, they suggest that although virtual communication may inhibit creative idea production - we should also consider overall cost.
“If, for argument’s sake, virtual collaborations produce 20% fewer ideas than do in-person teams, but at 40% of the cost, then the cost per idea is greater for in-person teams than for virtual collaborations.” - Horvát & Uzzi (2022)
Key Takeaway: Virtual pairs generate fewer creative ideas than in-person pairs. A focus on the screen (a narrow visual) leads to a narrow cognitive focus. However, virtual and in-person groups do not differ in quality of idea selection. More research is needed in this area to understand how these findings may apply in a variety of contexts.
Read More (Open): Brucks, M. S., & Levav, J. (2022). Virtual communication curbs creative idea generation. Nature, 605, 108-112.
“Virtual communication narrows visual focus, which subsequently hampers idea generation.”
**- Brucks & Levav (2022)**
However, computers and creative exploration do meet nicely when considering gamification! In fact, a study that we previously covered suggested that gamified experiences lead to more creative behavior, in turn increasing learning outcomes.
“Pleasant interactive experiences through the use of a system are beneficial to the training environment and promote creative, explorative behavior resulting in better learning outcomes (Perry and Ballou, 1997).” - Kim (2020)
Check out Issue #25 for more!
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The LSW Crew
Learning Science Weekly is written and edited by Katie Vanhardt, Ph.D.
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