Science usually plays the role of wet blanket when it comes to the topic of how alcohol affects the human body. But a researcher at the University of Illinois at Chicago says that downing a couple brewskis may actually improve one’s creative problem-solving abilities.
Cognitive psychologist Jennifer Wiley and her colleagues tested subjects’ prowess at creative problem-solving both when sober and at various stages of intoxication.
“We found at 0.07 blood alcohol, people were worse at working memory tasks, but they were better at creative problem-solving tasks,” says Wiley.
That’s because the alcohol helped study participants access remote ideas, ideas that develop through association not linear analysis. In fact, linear reasoning can keep people focused on ideas they think are important but really aren’t.
For example, if Wiley asked you to tell her what word goes with the following: blue, cottage, Swiss. And you said, “cheese,” you’d be accessing your remote ideas, not linear ones. That is, you associated blue, cottage, and Swiss with cheese, a commendable and constructive thing to do.
“We have this assumption, that being able to focus on one part of a problem or having a lot of expertise is better for problem solving,” says Wiley. “But that’s not necessarily true. Innovation may happen when people are not so focused. Sometimes it’s good to be distracted.”
Wiley says you don’t necessarily need alcohol to bring out the creative problem-solver hidden inside you. Merely changing your routine can be enough to shake things up for a bit. Wiley also says that working in groups of more than two people can foster creativity.
“In groups of two, we tend to be more polite, not to confront or ask questions,” she explains. “But when you respond to a question in a group of three, you’re not confronting, you’re speaking up for the whole group. So, it turns out that makes for a little more conflict, and good information comes out. In groups of two, people are looking for commonalities. Agreeing may get you through tasks quickly, but it doesn’t help solve problems in the long run.”
Thus, Wiley’s research has confirmed what some of us already knew: That going out to grab a few beers at 3 P.M. with a group of friends is the absolute best way to solve any and all problems.
Thank you Science!
Creative Problem Solving: Forget the Focus [FABB.org]