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How Impulsiveness Can Boost Your Creativity

The key may lie in a belief that slightly negative traits have silver linings.

How Impulsiveness Can Boost Your Creativity
[All Images (unless otherwise noted): via Wiki Commons]

Everyone who’s ever prepared for a job interview knows how to turn a personal weakness into a character strength. The flipside of being a little stubborn might be extra persistence. A bit of impatience, properly directed, fuels a sense of urgency. Shyness can be a drawback, but modesty is a virtue. And let’s be honest: what some people would call a pessimistic mindset could easily be seen as a practical one.

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New research suggests these optimistic perspectives might serve a greater purpose than just winning over employers or comforting our self-esteem. A group of psychologists recently found that people who believed impulsiveness had a potential benefit in creativity actually scored higher on creative tasks. The work, led by Alexandra Wesnousky of New York University, suggests more broadly that faith in the positive side of a negative trait—a “silver lining theory”—might help it shine through.

“A silver lining theory is a lay theory in which an individual believes that a negative attribute is related to a positive attribute,” the researchers write in Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. “The present research shows that this form of lay theory is prevalent, and leads to increased effort-based performance in the domain of the positive attribute.”

In a preliminary test, Wesnousky and collaborators found that more than 90% of people are inclined to see some sort of positive attribute associated with a typically negative trait. Subsequent experiments focused on the idea that there might be a silver lining to being impulsive—in the form of being more creative. As other research has shown, a lack of inhibition can free a mind to consider new and unusual ideas.


These follow-up experiments began with the researchers issuing test participants a standard impulsiveness survey. Afterward, some participants were told they’d scored very high on the survey—suggesting they were impulsive individuals. Others were told they’d scored very low.

Next the researchers led some test participants to believe that impulsivity had a silver lining of creativity. These participants read a fake new articles that cited scientific evidence to support the impulsive-creative connection. Other participants, meanwhile, read a fake news article refuting that link.

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Last, the test participants all completed an “alternative uses” task—a standard measure of creativity that asks people to list novel uses of common items. The researchers focused on how many alternative uses each participant generated in a given time window.

In two separate experiments with different samples—one conducted with a college-aged crowd and another conducted online with an older bunch—the researchers found measurable support for “silver lining” creativity. Participants in the impulsive group who read about its silver lining scored higher on the alternative uses task than those who did not. The non-impulsive participants showed no statistically significant difference on the creative measure, whether they believed in the silver lining or not.

Simply put, people led to think both that they were impulsive and that impulsiveness might lead to creativity saw this silver lining fulfilled.

In an experiment with an online sample, participants in the impulsive group (left) showed more creativity when they believed in silver linings, while those in the non-impulsive group (right) showed no statistical difference.via Journal of Experimental Social Psychology

A third test, in which all the participants were told they were impulsive, confirmed the results of the first two. Those led to believe in a silver lining of creativity produced more alternative uses than a neutral control group of participants. Likewise, those led to doubt any silver lining produced fewer than the control.

Wesnousky and company suspect the reason for the silver lining effect comes down to effort. Just as Van Gogh once wrote that suffering a manic attack “spurs me on to work and to seriousness,” others who believe in a connection between impulsive behavior and creativity might see the negative trait as a gateway to the positive one. In other words, these two related traits don’t just offset; rather, the one perceived as weaker could motivate pursuit of the one seen as stronger.


“Such theories may be used to compensate for unwanted behavior in the domain of the negative attribute by investing effort in the related positive attribute,” the researchers conclude.

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The study carries some noteworthy negatives of its own. Any research that relies on the alternative uses task must acknowledge its key limitation: just because a use is novel doesn’t necessarily make it creative. (And the researchers focused on quantity of alternative uses, rather than quality, raising further questions about their creative merit.) The conclusions would also be much more defensible if test participants had been legitimately impulsive rather than manipulated to feel this way.

So there’s work left to do to validate this link. But if the silver lining theory is correct, then recognizing these initial weaknesses should make for stronger evidence to come.

About the author

Eric Jaffe is an editor at CityLab, where he writes about transportation, history, and behavioral science, among other topics, through the lens of urban life. He's also the author of The King's Best Highway (2010) and A Curious Madness (2014).

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