A creative buzz

By Christopher Shea

People who like to write in cafes are onto something, it seems: A moderate level of noise—the equivalent of the background buzz of conversation — prompts more-creative thought, according to a study.

Across several experiments involving more than 300 people, participants worked on a series of exercises demanding mental flexibility, including word-association games and practical problems. They brainstormed about how a mattress company might improve its product, for example, and devised as many uses as possible for a brick. They did their thinking while ambient noise recorded in a cafeteria, roadside, and at a construction site was played at three levels: softly, moderately, or loudly, with the moderate level being about what you’d hear in a bustling café: 70 decibels. (In one experiment there was a control group that heard “no” noise, but there was some ambient sound even in that case, making it very much like the low-noise condition.)

People in the moderate-noise groups scored higher on the objective word-association test, and their answers to the other problems were rated, subjectively by peers, as more creative.

A final experiment involved having students answer questions about consumer products at a computer station located in a public space. There, the (real) noise ranged from low to moderate. When there was moderate noise, the test subjects were more likely to choose the more innovative of two products.

The study adds to research suggesting that small doses of distraction — including hard-to-read fonts — prompt the mind to work at a more abstract level, which is also a more creative level. (The possibility that sound energized people was considered but rejected: Participants’ heart rates did rise when they first encountered noise, but soon subsided.)  The effect of noise is inverted-U-shaped, this study suggested: There’s a sweet spot between silence and din.

Source: “Is Noise Always Bad? Exploring the Effects of Ambient Noise on Creative Cognition,” Ravi Mehta, Rui (Juliet) Zhu and Amar Cheema, Journal of Consumer Research (forthcoming)

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3 thoughts on “A creative buzz

  1. Joe Pineda says:

    Very entertaining read! It reminded me why I can’t keep my ass still whenever I write in long stretches, or whenever I grade tests for my students. John Coltrane at a low but noticeable volume usually does the trick.

  2. Lesley Mensah says:

    You might be on to something here Sam. Silence- when I need to concentrate- often gets filled with sheer tangential thoughts. Loudness, on the other hand crowds out my thoughts but yes the din of classical keeps me out of mischief as it were. Jazz does not ususally work for me. I like it a bit too much so I get pulled in!

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