10 Psychology Findings on Creativity

If you work in a creative agency you’ll know how unpredictable creativity can be. Can research ever really shed light on it?

The team at the British Psychological Society thinks so. They have published a number of findings on the topic over the last year or two.

We thought we'd share the most interesting ones with you here...


Red creativity

ARE CREATIVE TRAITS SEXY?  Is everyone attracted to the same creative behaviour? Researchers looked at three forms of creativity to answer these questions: Ornamental / aesthetic (e.g. art and music), Applied / Technological (e.g. science and engineering) and Everyday / Domestic (e.g. interior decorating or making a new recipe).

The participants were asked to rank in terms of sexual attraction creative acts in each of these areas. They also took various cognitive ability and personality tests and listed their own creative achievements.

IT TURNS OUT THAT people generally prefer creative acts in the ornamental / aesthetic area. Some of the sexiest behaviours are seen to be writing music, taking photos, writing poetry and performing in a band. However people who had made achievements in technology areas had a bias for people who had shown creativity in the same areas, such as making websites and writing creative software.

On the other hand, the people who had a preference for the ornamental / aesthetic areas weren’t those who had creative achievements in those areas themselves, but those having an openness to new experiences.

Champagne glasses


Science nerds are attracted to science nerds, so if you want to be sexually attractive to that group you’d better show some skills in that area. If, however, you crave being attractive in the ornamental / aesthetic area, your audience isn’t others who are similarly gifted but people who are open-minded. Either way, the answer to the question ‘Is Creativity Sexy’ would appear to be Yes. So if that applies to you, congratulations...



WHO SHOULD A COMPANY RECRUIT to run a creative team?

Should it be a non-creative manager who lets the team do the creative work, or someone who is themselves a confidently-creative person?

IT TURNS OUT THAT the answer is the latter. Researchers surveyed a hundred team leaders managing a total of over 500 individuals. Creative workers said they were more willing to focus on creativity when they were led by someone with high creative self-sufficiency.

But did the teams with creatively-confident leaders actually produce more creative work? Yes, according to the team leaders.

People higher in creative confidence were less conformist and more receptive to ideas. They understand creativity better, so they probably respect it and appreciate it more, and the team responds.

Leader's laurel.


Some observers had half expected that confidently-creative managers could theoretically get in the way of their team, perhaps being reluctant to delegate, or generally meddling, or thinking they could do it better. Anecdotally, it can happen in sales roles. When successful salespeople are promoted to sales managers they don’t always pass on the magic to the team. But such problems don’t seem to apply in the creative domain.



EVERYBODY KNOWS OF SOME famously creative dream that turned into reality.

Einstein dreamed of sledging down a hill at the speed of light. Robert Louis Stevenson dreamed the concept of Jekyll and Hyde.

But is there evidence that keeping a dream diary helps improve dream recall? And does that actually help creativity?

IT TURNS OUT THAT the answer is Yes to both questions. Researchers asked volunteers to complete two specified acts of creativity a month apart. In between those dates, some were asked to write their dream diary, whereas a control group wrote about a vivid event from the previous day.

Both groups remembered more dreams at the end of the month, with the dream diary group showing the biggest increase of dream recall. But had they become more creative? Again, both teams showed an increase, but the dream-loggers showed the greatest rise in creative elements like emotional expressiveness, narrative, humour, richness of imagery and fantasy.

A bed.


The researchers suggest that people filling in a dream diary are encouraging cross-fertilization between the two worlds, which makes any creative leaps and elaborations more accessible. So if you’re looking for creative inspiration, instead of always automatically searching online for external ideas you might try looking inwards and take more advantage of what your own hidden worlds have to offer.


Sea lion yawning

IF YOU'RE AN EVENING PERSON, you naturally assume that you are at your peak of creativity in the evenings.

Similarly, morning people will say that they should be given creative tasks in the mornings.

It stands to reason. Right?

BUT IT TURNS OUT that both would be wrong. Insight-based thinking is best when you’re at your most groggy. Insight-based problem-solving requires a broad, unfocused approach. This occurs when your inhibitory brain processes are at their weakest and your thoughts are meandering about. So, evening people do best at this sort of task in their sleepy morning time. Morning people do them best in the evening.

But on analytic questions, both performed best at their stated peak times. (Example of such an analytic question: ‘Bob’s father is 3 times as old as Bob. They were both born in October. Four years ago...). If you’re an evening person, don’t try to do these in the mornings.



People aren’t simply either night owls or morning larks. Instead, it depends on the type of problem needing to be solved. So ideally you should split your tasks up into insight-based and analytic-based problems, because you peak at different times. Encouragingly, this all means that no matter what time of day it is, you’re always peaking at something.


Woodcut of writer

EVERYBODY ASSUMES THAT BRAINSTORMING is a brilliant way to come up with ideas.

The very name sounds so full of promise that it surely can't fail to deliver.

Indeed, the general public probably assumes that creative agencies do it all day long as an essential part of their creative process.

BUT IT TURNS OUT that there’s a rather better way, according to research. Here’s how it works:

First, have everyone in the team write down their ideas before sharing them. A further refinement is to colour-code the notepaper to aid idea ownership. Only then should you brainstorm. Apparently you get better results this way. An improved cross-fertilisation effect is created. One reason? The fear that some people have of having their ideas shot down in public.

But note that it’s not giving up on brainstorming. People do indeed come up with more original ideas on their own, but combining ideas into novel concepts is better achieved by brainstorming.



As always, there’s no single best way to do creative things. It all depends on the nature of the task, the question in hand and the current stage of the idea’s development.


Planet earth

THERE'S SOMETHING ODD about the act of living abroad.

Note that briefly travelling abroad, for example going on holiday there, isn’t enough for this purpose: It has to be living there to count.

IT TURNS OUT THAT people who had spent time abroad:

  • were more likely to solve practical problems
  • were more likely to succeed in an awkward negotiation task requiring a creative solution
  • even if they merely thought about the time they had lived abroad, they were more likely to solve word-based tasks

These results held even after allowing for personality variables, so it wasn’t simply a fact that people who have spent time abroad are more creative to begin with.

A further study showed that the more a person had adapted to a foreign culture, the better their creative problem solving. Even thinking about when they had adapted to the foreign country helped.



It's a cliche that travel broadens the mind. Probably it does in general. But living abroad for a time seems to have an even bigger effect on creativity. This of course supports the theory that a multi-cultural workplace has particular benefits. Harvard Business Review has 20 articles showing that diverse teams and companies perform better, are more creative and are better at solving problems. Accessing HBR research on Diversity.



IT IS WELL KNOWN that lots of cross-talk between a person’s brain hemispheres helps creativity.

But, as ever, it’s not quite as simple as that. One key factor is a person’s handedness. If someone has one hand that is particularly dominant, (‘strong-handers’), they have less cross-talk between their brain hemispheres than more ambidextrous people. And ambidextrous people seem to be more creative than strong-handers.

IT TURNS OUT THAT in this new research, participants were asked to spend thirty seconds doing a remarkably simple task: Shifting their eyes horizontally back and forth. Surprisingly, this exercise increases inter-hemispheric communication. It resulted in significant improvements in their creativity, with results that were original and prolific.

Ambidextrous people didn’t benefit from the exercise. It’s as though they already have the optimum amount of cross-talk already. However before you get too excited about all this, the benefits were disappointingly brief. Just nine minutes for originality, and only three to six minutes for prolific ideas.

Eye icon


Even temporary improvements in creativity are not to be sniffed at. But the practicality of strong-handed people doing this strange eye movement exercise half a dozen times an hour is questionable. However we’re all told that we shouldn’t stare at our screens for too long anyway. And presumably today’s ubiquitous use of staring into a phone even when away from the office only exacerbates the problem. So getting into the habit of frequently looking away and exercising the eyes is maybe not so far-fetched after all.


Blue light at concert

COLOURS ARE WELL KNOWN to affect mood and cognition generally. But which colour does what? As always, it depends on the task in hand.

RED provokes a cautious approach, beneficial for tasks that need attention to detail and practicality. Examples: tasks involving word recall and proof-reading. When participants are given multiple objects with which to create a child’s toy, those given red parts produced more practical results.

BLUE provokes exploratory thinking, which is conducive to creativity, such as coming up with better-quality creative ideas and more creative associations. In the child’s toy experiment, those given blue elements came up with more original and creative results.

PARTICIPANTS shown advertisements preferred those against a red background if the ads displayed multiple product details to consider, whereas the blue background was preferred when they were looking at images.

Blue cloud


Anecdotally, red is often associated with stimulation and emotions whereas blue is linked to calmness and healing. To these we can now add red for analysis and blue for creativity. As a result, an individual in a creative agency office unable to change their office decor can easily change their screensaver and immediate desk environment. Blue clothes and coffee cup? Worth a try.


Man photographing himself

ARE PEOPLE with self-obsessions and strong self-beliefs particularly creative and original?

IT TURNS OUT that the answer is No. Research shows that narcissists on their own aren’t any more creative than non-narcissists. However they think they are.

It’s complicated by the factors of enthusiasm and energy. Narcissists pitch their ideas to others with more gusto and belief, and this can sway people’s decisions. Achieving such wins further feeds the narcissists’ belief that their ideas are better than those of others.

BUT IT ALSO TURNS OUT that when only transcripts of the pitches are seen, the narcissists no longer scored higher than the rest. It seems that it is their bravado and charisma rather than their creativity that’s doing the trick.

However when there are two narcissists in a group, things change. Such groups out-performed groups with one or none. It’s due to healthy competition, which triggers idea generation. But note: too many narcissists in a group creates excessive competition and all sorts of other problems.

Icon of person surrounded by attention


Narcissists crave recognition and power. But their manager can turn that to group advantage. Singly, narcissists do not increase creativity, but if you get two of them to work together they can turn what is a negative trait into a positive source of creative tension. But two’s company. Three’s a noisy crowd.


Children painting

A TEAM OF UK PSYCHOLOGISTS says they have developed a reliable way to measure creativity in infants. Specifically, the experiments measure divergent thinking, which is a form of creative thinking involving new ideas and new ways of doing things.

They filmed toddlers, average age 19 months, as they played with unusual objects combined with a specially-designed box that had compartments, steps, shelves, holes and strings, offering a wide variety of play opportunities. They measured the number of actions performed by the toddlers. There was a wide spread of scores. The toddlers were then tested two weeks later.

IT TURNS OUT THAT the toddlers who were more creative the first time around were also freshly creative later. Being new thinking, it wasn’t simply a factor of memorising the first exercise. Some toddlers really do seem to be more creative than others.

Intriguingly, the researchers also tested the toddlers’ mother or father for creativity. These largely correlated with their children’s creative abilities, implying either a genetic link or an environment that openly encourages creativity.

Icon of a toddler


If you ever feel stale and begin to lose confidence about your own creativity, it might help to remember that if you’ve got it, you’ve got it. The research implies that anyone showing any creative streaks earlier on in their life probably has such talents as a core trait. So if you’re feeling stale, you just need to find fresh motivation again.


Walking on steps

The British Psychological Society Research Digest in 2015 published a study purporting to prove that walking backwards boosts creativity.

They claimed that established routines and habits stifle our ability to think creatively. They suggested that performing bodily movements in a conventional manner encourages the mind to follow suit, and vice versa. So by breaking out of physical conformity, such as walking backwards instead of forwards, we can encourage a more creative mindset to develop.

They went on to describe an experiment which involved getting students to walk backwards and then report their findings. Not all of the students were able to complete the study, however, as one of them got lost and another fell into a water feature in the university grounds. And backward-walking company staff achieved less at work because of frequent drink spillages and uncontrollable laughing fits among staff.

Sceptical? You’re right to be. Read on.

Icon of man running


OK. You’ve probably guessed it by now. The date of the article was April 1. It was an in-joke by the psychology community, no less. Nice to see that even psychologists don’t always take themselves too seriously.

Perhaps it helps them to stay sane...

WE HOPE THAT you found this tour of creative mind research interesting, you blue, groggy, sexy thing you.

And what is Synergist in all of this? We’re the UK’s leading job costing and project management system for the creative agency world including digital, design and advertising agencies and PR consultancies.

Creative agencies rely on Synergist every day to track and manage their jobs and uncover insights, issues and trends that ordinary project management software can’t deliver on. Why is your hard-earned profitability leaking away? What early warnings should be surfacing? What sort of projects should you be steering your agency towards?

With all that agency intelligence in place, you can then focus on what you were born to do. Creativity.