Photo: Applied Cognitive Psychology
Ideally, brainstorming occurs when you put a bunch of great minds together in a room, they bounce ideas off one another and come up with even greater ideas.Or that’s the way it’s supposed to work. According to a new study published in Applied Cognitive Psychology, this popular method of inspiring group creativity is actually inefficient.
Researchers from the University of Texas and Texas A&M University found that group brainstorming can cause “[cognitive] fixation, defined as something that blocks or impedes the successful completion of various types of cognitive operations, such as those involved in remembering, solving problems, and generating creative ideas.”
Cognitive fixation causes people to focus on other people’s ideas and are, inevitably, unable to come up with their own. They may also be afraid to speak up in large groups or introduce ideas that are radically different than the norm.
The researchers asked 160 students to contribute ideas alone or in groups of four people and found that individual participants outperformed those in groups. Both the individual and group brainstorming participants were given specific topics and asked to brainstorm as many ideas as possible within 20 minutes.
The individual participants sent their ideas directly to researchers and received no communication or feedback during their session. The group participants communicated with one another through AOL Instant Messenger’s (AIM) chat function. They could see each others’ ideas, but were unable to identify the brainstormer since each person was assigned a random ID. They were not allowed to criticise one another.
All of the participants sat together in a room separated by dividers to refrain them from making visible contact with one another.
Researchers further tested the impact cognitive fixation has on others’ ideas by altering the number of ideas that different group participants were exposed to. They found that the more notifications a participant saw, the less creative, diverse ideas they offered.
In the first five minutes of the session, individual participants generated 44% more ideas than the group participants, but this number decreased with time, which concludes that a group session after an individual session might be the optimal brainstorming technique.
Although the study proves that group brainstorming is less productive than individual brainstorming, researchers say that using different methods also depends on the ultimate goal for the brainstorming. For example, if the goal is to come up with a bunch of unique ideas or solutions to problems, then the group should be split up so that individuals can come up with their own ideas and these ideas can later be combined with other members’ ideas. Instead, if the goal is to explore only a few ideas in depth, then group interaction should be encouraged since the study shows groups tend to go deeper into categories than individuals do.
The study also says that taking breaks during brainstorming sessions can help alleviate cognitive fixation, especially when it comes to quantity and variety of ideas.
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