Creative types are often seen as rather flaky — their minds leaping wildly from one bizarre idea to another, ever seeking inspiration. But a new study suggests that people who actually achieve creative success have minds that stubbornly cling to ideas, even to the point where it impairs their ability to shift focus.
In one experiment, researchers at Northwestern University in Illinois selected 34 students out of more than 300 who completed a questionnaire on creative achievement, ultimately including 19 who had outstanding achievements in music, art, science, writing or other areas and 15 of those whose scores ranked them as being among the least creative.
“We preselected people with very high and very low creative achievement,” says lead author Darya Zabelina, a graduate student at Northwestern. The research was published in Frontiers in Psychology.
During the study, participants had to shift their attention from a global level of processing to a local one, by focusing on different aspects of patterns. In some cases, they were asked to identify a large letter made up of smaller ones (for example, an “S” pattern made up of smaller “e’s”). In other instances, the correct answer was the opposite one — identifying the smaller letter.
“It’s a little counter-intuitive,” says Zabelina, “but people with high creativity actually actually perform badly on this test.” In fact, they made more than twice as many errors as the less creative group — and even after controlling for overall intelligence, the creative people still did less well.