As it turns out, “thinking outside of the box” is more than just a metaphor for applying creativity to problem-solving.
In a new study, researchers wanted to scientifically evaluate common creativity metaphors and to explore linkages between mind and body.
“Creativity is a highly sought-after skill,” they write. “Metaphors of creative thinking abound in everyday use.”
As part of the experiment, Angela Leung, Ph.D., and her colleagues had students think up solutions to problems while physically acting out various metaphors about creative thinking and found that the instructions actually worked. They found some metaphors “work” by activating psychological processes conducive for generating previously unknown and therefore creative ideas.
In one experiment, each participant was seated either inside or outside of a five-by-five-foot cardboard box. The two environments were set up to be otherwise the same in every way, and people didn’t feel claustrophobic in the box.
Participants were told it was a study on different work environments. Each person completed a test widely used to test creativity; those who were outside did the test better than people who were inside the box.
In another experiment, some participants were asked to join the halves of cut-up coasters before taking a test — a physical representation of “putting two and two together.”
People who acted out the metaphor displayed more convergent thinking, a component of creativity that requires bringing together many possible answers to settle on one that will work.
Some other experiments found that walking freely generated more original ideas than walking in a set line; another found validity in “on one hand; on the other hand.”
Researchers believe the findings suggest metaphors somehow release creativity.
“Having a leisurely walk outdoors or freely pacing around may help us break our mindset,” said Leung. “Also, we may consider getting away from Dilbert’s cubicles and creating open office spaces to free up our minds.”
The study will be published in a forthcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science.