Creative insight tends to strike one of two ways: either we labor over our work for hours and eventually find an innovative solution, or we’re driving in a car or lying in bed and a good idea just hits us. These totally opposite ways of thinking—a focused mind versus a wandering mind—can both lead to inspiration. But does one strategy work better when we need to solve a creative problem? A new study suggests that the answer may depend on your personality.
Psychologists Claire Zedelius and Jonathan Schooler from the University of California, Santa Barbara, investigated these very different creative cognitive processes in two experiments. In both trials, published in Frontiers in Psychology, the researchers measured participants’ personality types—whether they were inclined toward mind wandering or focused attention—with a questionnaire that asked people to assess things like “I break or spill things because of carelessness, not paying attention, or thinking of something else.” In the first experiment, 70 people received a set of instructions that defined problem-solving two ways: through an analytical strategy or through insight (when an idea pops into your head). Then, they were given three words (like “ache, hunter, and cabbage”) and they had to think of a fourth word to match with the other three (like “head”) to complete three separate phrases: headache, headhunter, and cabbage head.
Participants went through 30 of these word triad puzzles, and had half a minute to come up with an answer for each one. After they solved a problem, they were asked whether they solved the problem solely with strategy or insight, or through a combination of the two. Zedelius and Schooler found that overall, people performed best when they solved problems insightfully. Yet when they broke down the results based on personality, insight only gave an advantage to mind-wanderers. For more focused people, analytical problem solving worked better than insight.
In another trial, the researchers split 99 people into groups: one group got instructions telling them to solve the word triad puzzles analytically by making an “exhaustive mental list of words” to combine with the three words, and the other group was told to solve the puzzles with insight, by “letting the right answer ‘pop’ into (their) mind.” Again, Zedelius and Schooler found that focused attention generally decreased people’s creative performance, but focused individuals still did better than mind-wanderers when both personality types tried to solve problems analytically. The team didn’t find a significant difference in problem-solving abilities when the two types used insight, but Zedelius thinks they may not have seen a difference because even with instructions, it’s hard to tell someone how to solve a problem intuitively. “To tell someone to just let the answer come to them, that’s very vague,” says Zedelius, “We’re basically asking them to do nothing.”
These results suggest that people may increase their creativity if they use a cognitive approach that best suits their personality, yet the researchers acknowledge that people are bound to use both styles. “Some people may favor one approach over the other, but both approaches are valid,” says Zedelius, “Even if you are a mindful person, everybody’s mind wanders or daydreams.” She also emphasized that people’s minds are malleable, and their natural inclination towards focus or distraction may change over their lifetime, such as with training in mindfulness meditation.
Harvard cognitive neuroscientist David Vago also points out that it’s important to understand what state of mind people are in while they’re solving creative problems, because even a focused person might have been distracted while solving the word puzzles, or vice versa with an easily distracted person. “Personality is an enduring trait throughout your life, whereas your ‘state’ measures something transient—it what’s you’re experiencing in the moment,” he explains. “If they wanted to measure mindfulness and mind wandering in a creative task, then they should have come up with a better ‘state’ measure right before or after that task.” Vago also says that the questionnaire used in the study isn’t a great measure of someone’s predisposition toward mindfulness or mind wandering, but it’s currently the standard that researchers use in the field.
Despite its limitations, Zedelius’s and Schooler’s study may give people some guidance about how to tackle a problem when they need a creative solution. “If your mind wanders a lot, then use that to your advantage and don’t try to force an analytic approach if it’s not successful,” says Zedelius, “You have to find the creative approach that works best for you.”