People who are not very open-minded or open to new experiences tend to become more creative after engaging in an emotion regulation strategy known as cognitive reappraisal, according to new research published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. This suggests that our cognitive processes, like regulating emotions, can have a ripple effect on other aspects of our thinking and behavior.
Previous research has shown that certain emotional states can enhance creativity, and individuals actively shape their emotional experiences through emotion regulation. Emotion regulation refers to the processes individuals use to monitor and control their emotions. People use different strategies to regulate their emotions, such as trying to think positively or avoiding negative thoughts.
However, limited research has explored how different emotion regulation strategies affect creativity. This study proposes that different strategies have different effects on creativity because they involve different cognitive processes. The focus is on the cognitive underpinnings of emotion regulation strategies rather than their consequences for emotions.
One specific emotion regulation strategy called cognitive reappraisal, which involves reframing the meaning of emotional events, is hypothesized to boost creativity. It is believed that engaging in cognitive reappraisal activates a flexible cognitive processing style that facilitates creativity, beyond just changing emotional experiences. Other emotion regulation strategies that do not involve reinterpreting emotional events are not expected to have the same potential to enhance creative thinking.
“The interest originated from the observations or anecdotes that many people think that creativity is difficult and rare—the belief that only some very talented individuals can be creative. However, this common belief seems to be at odds with cumulated insights from decades of psychological research which suggests that creative thinking skills can be trained,” explained study author Lily Y. Zhu, an assistant professor at Washington State University’s Carson College of Business.
“In particular, our research team observed that creativity may be something that people engage in our everyday life. For example, if I need to pay a fine and am frustrated about it, I can think of the fine as a tuition (i.e., a lesson gained rather than a loss). To cope with anxiety, people may think of an important presentation as an opportunity to share ideas rather than as a high-stakes evaluation.”
“In those examples, people reframe the meaning of emotional events to change the emotional experience (termed as ‘reappraisal’ in psychology). There is a creative element in it because we are thinking about something from a different perspective than the default. With these insights in mind, we embarked on this project, exploring the linkage between creativity and reappraisal and see if we can leverage the linkage to develop interventions to help people be more creative.”
To investigate the relationship between cognitive reappraisal and creativity, the researchers conducted a series of three studies.
In Study 1, undergraduate business students from a large public university in the western United States were recruited to complete a survey. The researchers aimed to gather as many participants as possible during an academic term. The final sample consisted of 279 participants.
The participants completed a survey that included scales to measure their tendency to use reappraisal and suppression as emotion regulation strategies, as well as a creativity measure. The data collected were analyzed after the survey was completed.
In Study 2, the researchers focused on testing the causal effect of reappraisal experience on creativity, particularly in relation to the personality trait of openness. They also examined whether cognitive flexibility mediated this effect. The researchers recruited participants from an online survey platform called Prolific Academic. They initially recruited 400 participants for the study, and after applying exclusion criteria, the final sample consisted of 323 participants.
The study compared reappraisal with two other emotion regulation strategies, distraction and suppression, as well as a control condition with no emotion regulation instructions. Participants were randomly assigned to one of these conditions and were asked to regulate their emotions while watching a film clip. Afterward, they completed a creativity task.
In Study 3, the researchers further investigated the relationship between reappraisal and creativity, focusing on the role of cognitive flexibility. They used a different sample of participants from an online survey platform. After applying exclusion criteria, the final sample consisted of 177 participants.
The researchers used a similar design as Study 2, with participants assigned to different emotion regulation conditions while watching a film clip. Afterward, participants completed a creativity task that involved generating ideas for a new business. The creativity of the ideas was evaluated by independent coders based on novelty and usefulness ratings.
In the first study, Zhu and her colleagues found a positive association between creativity and the use of reappraisal, suggesting that people who frequently use reappraisal tend to be more creative. However, using suppression did not have the same positive association with creativity. This suggests that reappraisal has a unique and stronger connection to creativity compared to other ways of regulating emotions.
“We find that simply reinterpreting a frustrating situation can enhance the creativity of conventional thinkers,” Zhu told PsyPost. “Therefore, people could practice flexible thinking every day when they encounter negative emotions.”
“People who find themselves in a situation that calls for emotion regulation could opt to practice reappraisal, rather than distracting themselves from the situation or suppressing their emotions. Although people may not always have control over the external circumstances, they do have the liberty to choose how to cope with emotional situations – and they can do so in ways that facilitate their productivity and well-being.”
In Study 2 and Study 3, the researchers discovered that using reappraisal to regulate emotions enhanced creativity for individuals low in openness, but not for those high in openness. This suggests that reappraisal can compensate for the limited perspectives and conventional thinking of individuals low in openness.
“The finding that surprised us — and made sense in retrospect — was that the magnitude of the positive effect of reappraisal on creativity differs depending on people’s innate tendencies to think differently (termed as ‘openness to experience’ in psychology),” Zhu explained. “For those who are already open to new ideas and experiences, reappraisal doesn’t have as much of an impact, like adding more gas to a car that already has fuel. For people who are more conventional in their thinking styles and not as open to new ideas and experiences as other people, reappraisal boosted their creativity significantly.”
“We saw this contingency as an interesting insight because many people assume that personalities will determine who are more creative than others. Our findings suggest that even conventional thinkers can become creative with some practice of flexible thinking.”
The researchers said their findings suggests that leaders can model and promote the use of reappraisal in organizations to establish norms of handling negative emotions in a creative and constructive manner. This can facilitate the discovery of new opportunities and the generation of creative ideas among team members.
“Beyond implications for individuals, our research also has implications for hiring and training processes in organizations,” Zhu told PsyPost. “Job candidates are often slotted to creative and non-creative jobs based on cues that signal creative potential. Not only are these cues relatively poor at predicting performance, but this hiring practice may also limit employers’ access to employees with knowledge and experience that also play major roles in generating creative outcomes.”
“Our findings illustrate that organizations can cultivate creativity in everyone, not just in a limited set of individuals who are naturally gifted in creativity. Organizations can develop training and interventions to cultivate creativity in their employees, even for those who lack the personality traits that are conducive to creativity, rather than cutting them off because they might have knowledge and skills that are important for certain organizational problems.”
The study, “Unlocking creative potential: Reappraising emotional events facilitates creativity for conventional thinkers“, was authored by Lily Yuxuan Zhu, Christopher W. Bauman, and Maia J. Young.