A popular way of mustering innovative and fresh ideas is to hold a brainstorming session — but according to a paper published recently in Applied Cognitive Psychology, this may not be the best approach. The study, which was carried out by Nicholas Kohn of the University of Texas at Arlington and Steven Smith of Texas A&M University, suggests that instead of enhancing creativity, brainstorming sessions may give rise to a “collaborative fixation” on certain ideas.
In keeping with previous studies, the authors first found that participants produced fewer ideas, in total, when taking part in a brainstorming session than if they had been working separately. The difference was as high as 44% in the first 5 minutes of a brainstorming session. The authors also found that when working separately participants explored a greater variety of ideas, up to 55% more idea categories than during brainstorming sessions.
In a second experiment, the researchers found that participants in a brainstorming session tended to conform “to ideas to which they were exposed, and the rate of conformity increased as the number of ideas exposed increased,” the authors wrote in their paper. “Fixation to other people’s ideas can occur unconsciously and lead to you suggesting ideas that mimic your brainstorming partners. Thus, you potentially become less creative,” Kohn explains in an accompanying press release.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that you should ban brainstorming sessions from your lab meetings. You might just need to adjust the format. It seems odd, but, depending on what you want to achieve, the best approach might be to put everyone in a separate room.
“Assuming it is desirable to have a wide variety of ideas or solutions to a problem… then one should split the brainstorming group into non-interacting individuals, avoiding a group session,” the authors write in their research paper. “On the other hand, if the goal is to explore a few categories in depth, then interacting among the members should be encouraged. Also, taking a break might help alleviate fixation, leading to an improvement in ideation, especially in terms of the quantity and variety of ideas.”