Conventional Thinkers Can Boost Creativity by Changing Feelings

For some “conventional thinkers,”—those who rank low on openness to new ideas and experiences—creativity may not come as naturally as it does to others. But a new study indicates that creativity to can be trained thanks to something called “emotional reappraisal.” The key seems to reside in a person’s ability to look at emotional situations in a different light.

The Study on Creativity

Researchers from Washington State University’s Carson College of Business and University of California, Irvine, conducted a survey and two similar experiments with three different groups of people.

In the survey of 279 college students, the researchers found that people who tended to be more creative ranked high on openness to new ideas and were more likely to practice emotional reappraisal (seeing a situation through another emotional lens, such as seeing an anger-inducing event as one that is neutral or hopeful) regularly.

In the first experiment, 335 people were ranked on openness and then before watching a movie scene that was designed to elicit anger. The viewers were divided into four groups, with each group given a different set of instructions:

• Group 1 was told to suppress their emotions

• Group 2 was told to try emotional reappraisal 

• Group 3 was told to think about something else to distract themselves

• Group 4 was given no instruction on how to regulate their feelings

When the movie ended, the participants were asked to suggest a way to use an empty space in the building (currently occupied by a café going out of business). A panel of experts with no information about the participants was asked to evaluate the ideas. Suggestions to open a similar cafeteria or another food franchise were considered to be low on the creative scale, while ideas like “napping pods” or a childcare facility were considered highly creative.

In the second experiment, a different group of 177 participants were asked to write about an experience that made them angry. For the second half of the experiment, some of the participants were instructed to write about the incident from a different emotional perspective or to write about something else as a distraction. 

The Results of Emotional Regulation

For both experiments, people who were considered “conventional thinkers” came up with more creative ideas if they tried using emotional reappraisal, compared to other conventional thinkers who used suppression, distraction, or no emotional regulation at all.

The studies’ findings may be able to improve productivity and cultivate creative thinking skills in the workplace, as well as improve how individuals deal with challenges, crisis and negative emotions in the workplace and in everyday life.

“Negative emotions are inevitable in the workplace,” said lead author Lily Zhu, an assistant professor in Washington State University’s Carson College of Business. “The question is not do we want negative emotions, or not? The question is: how can we better deal with them in a productive, healthy way? Part of the implications of this study is that we can use negative emotions in our everyday life as opportunities to practice flexible thinking.”

The results were published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.


Wendy Burt-Thomas writes about the brain, mental health and parenting.

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