Research on group creativity shows consistently that the same people come up with more ideas working on their own than they do when brainstorming together. But perhaps it’s time to move beyond this striking yet superficial discovery. After all, having a list of initial ideas is not the end of the creative process. A new study by Nicholas Kohn and colleagues has focused on the creative task of idea combination, finding that in this context groups do have advantages over individuals working alone.
One hundred and eight student participants formed groups of three working at computer terminals located apart (this set-up was used to rule out the influence of various social factors that emerge in face-to-face situations). The participants’ ten-minute task was to come up with fresh ideas for how to improve their university. Some of the groups of three shared their ideas electronically – that is, each individual could see the ideas of their two fellow team members appear on their own screen as they worked. Other groups worked alone, each individual entirely cut off from their two team members.
The next stage was about idea combination. All participants, whether they previously worked alone or not, now had access to a list of their own existing ideas and the already proposed ideas of their team members. For the next fifteen minutes participants attempted to combine these existing ideas into novel concepts, or to combine an existing idea with a new one. Crucially, half the participants (whether they previously worked alone or collaboratively) now did the combining on their own; the other half could see their team members’ newly combined ideas appear on-screen as they worked.
Consistent with past research, participants who worked alone in the first phase came up with more ideas than those who worked cooperatively with their team members. However, team working was more successful in the second, idea combination phase. Although participants working on their own came up with more combined ideas, it was the combined ideas produced by participants working together that were rated by independent judges as being more useful.
Another finding was that participants who worked alone in the first phase were more likely to use other people’s ideas to form novel combinations in the second phase (rather than just combining their own earlier ideas), perhaps because they were seeing them for the first time and therefore finding them more stimulating.
A second study was similar to the first except the participants were asked to form newly combined ideas out of existing ideas from an external source (ie. not generated by themselves or their team members). The topic was as before – how to improve the university. Some groups worked with ideas categorised as common, others with rare ideas. This time the collaborators sat around a table and followed a “brain writing” technique – each time they conceived of a new idea combination they wrote it down on a piece of paper and passed it to their neighbour, who rated its usefulness. The purpose of this was to make sure collaborating participants engaged with each others’ ideas.
Again, individuals working alone generated more freshly combined ideas than individuals working collaboratively – this was unsurprising since the brain writing process is time consuming. However, participants working collaboratively with rare material came up with combined ideas that judges rated as more novel and feasible, than did participants working alone. And collaborating participants working with common material came up with combined ideas rated as having more impact. This result shows again that there are times in the creative process when working collaboratively has advantages.
‘Our results provide a fertile basis for future studies to examine the factors that influence this process and enhance the ability of groups to generate combinations that are both original and useful,’ Kohn and his team concluded.
Kohn, N., Paulus, P., and Choi, Y. (2011). Building on the ideas of others: An examination of the idea combination process. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2011.01.004