Have you ever been in a situation when you really needed a new idea and your brain seemed to freeze? Or maybe you’ve tried to solve a problem and every idea seemed like a bad one? You are not alone. Creativity and anxiety—or even small amounts of uncertainty—don’t necessarily mix well.
Researchers Mueller, Melwani and Goncalo (2012) found that people are less likely to be creative when they feel uncertain. And it didn’t take much uncertainty to do it. The uncertainty produced by telling people that they might be paid a small amount after completing the task—or they might not—was enough to change their performance on a creativity measure.
In another study, people who had been “primed” to be more uncertain were less likely to find creative solutions to a problem—and when presented with a creative idea, were less likely to recognize it as creative. Their findings point out a great irony—when we are uncertain and most need creative solutions, we are less likely to recognize them. Think about what this could mean to those facing natural disasters, to businesses under stress, or to families facing illness or financial struggles.
I suspect this phenomenon operates in classrooms as well. The very conditions that support creativity in schools lead to uncertainty. Both teachers and students must give up the comfort of always having the answer in the back of the book, or knowing for sure which option is best. It can be uncomfortable—and uncertain. This very uncertainty may make us less inclined to choose the creative path, or see the creative ideas right before us.It also will make it harder for students to respond creatively if they are anxious or uncertain about our response.
If we are to create the classrooms we need—and the classrooms our students deserve—we must recognize this danger and work against it. Classrooms that support creativity must be safe spaces—not just during “creative activity time” but all day long. Creative classrooms will require determination along with flexibility, and persistence in the face of ambiguity. We have our work cut out for us—but I believe it is worth it.
Have you had any experiences in which uncertainty or anxiety affected creativity?
Mueller, J.S., Melwani, S., & Goncalo, J. A. (2012). The bias against creativity: Why people desire but reject creative ideas. Psychological Science 23(1) 13–17.