The Value of What’s Old About New Ideas

Will Tumonis of Swaycraft, Ltd. recently blogged about how using abstract representations of problems can boost creative thinking. But he also rightly noted that abstraction is not enough; without concrete ideas to link your efforts to the pragmatic realities of a task, serious innovation isn’t possible.

I think he’s right, and his observations go to the core of how we define creativity. The two ingredients most students of creativity agree on as a minimum are novelty and purpose. If a product doesn’t have both, we don’t call it creative. Take the disordered speech that people with schizophrenia might exhibit. They sometimes utter novel sentences that have never been heard in the whole history of humankind. But it seems devoid of meaning to most listeners. It has novelty, but we generally wouldn’t say it was creative because it falls short on purposeful communication.

Thinking abstractly can aid novelty, but may work against purpose. And it has always interested me that novelty gets the bulk of attention in the field of creativity. We shortchange purpose, or more to the point, we shortchange the stuff that gives new ideas purpose. A lot of creativity advice seems to take the form “Everything you know is wrong. You need to reject it.” I think, instead, “most of what you know is right, and you need to find ways to access and use it constructively.” We need to pay more attention to the value of what’s old about new ideas, the stuff that ties them to reality in purposeful ways.

Consider a task I’ve used in research on idea generation: design a new sport. Describe where, how and by whom it’s played and what rules govern the players’ actions. Take just a moment to think about it before reading further.

If you’re like most people in these studies, you probably came up with something that amalgamates two or more sports you know about, such as football and roller skating, or basketball and soccer. You’re thinking very concretely, following what I call the path-of-least resistance, pulling from memory concrete examples of easily recalled sports. They become your starting points. And as a result, your new sport probably looks a lot like old ones, limited in novelty.

But, what else could you have done? Think abstractly. What is sport all about anyway? What abstract characteristics do most sports have in common? Competition. Teams. Scoring. Some object that gets competed for, etc. When you design your new sport on these abstract ideas, you’re not constrained by the specifics of any one sport you know. You can fill those abstract placeholders for teams, scoring, objects and so on with any values you want. The object doesn’t have to be a ball or something similar as in most sports. It could be anything. Like a giant flaming ball of gas! Novelty will go up.

But here’s the rub. Without the specifics of existing sports to guide you, knowing what can sensibly fill those slots is a challenge, and your idea may not be as playable or interesting to watch as it could otherwise have been with guidance from the concrete. (I’m not ready to sign up to be goalie in the flaming gas ball league!) Ideas conceived this way can be short on purpose. And that’s exactly what research shows. People who think abstractly design sports (and develop other ideas) that are more original but less practical.

If your mission is to generate novelty, accessing your knowledge abstractly is the way to go. If practicality and purpose matter more than novelty, sticking to more specific, concrete ideas may help. In most cases, creativity is likely to emerge from judicious use of old ideas at multiple levels of abstraction. And note, this means using what you know, not rejecting it.

My favorite example of the limits of abstraction is the device pictured at the top of this post that was patented in 1965. It makes use of one of the most abstract ideas possible, centrifugal force. For what? To aid childbirth! Yes, to aid childbirth. The woman about to deliver rests on an inclined surface on a rotating platform. The rotation produces centrifugal force, which aids in bringing the baby down into the birth canal. For skeptics, I provide here the link to the US Patent Office listing of the device (3,216,423). It was awarded the Ig Nobel prize in 1999 in the category of Managed Health Care. Intriguingly, the prize is for ideas that “make people LAUGH then make them THINK.” I don’t have the engineering or medical expertise to evaluate the workability of the idea. I only have my own experience at the birth of my first child. There was much screaming (from her Mom) during a valiant but vain attempt at natural childbirth. I suspect that the abstract principle of centrifugal force would have increased the concrete reality of those cries both in quantity and volume!

Ward, T. B. (2008). The role of domain knowledge in creative generation.  Learning and Individual Differences, 18, 363-366.

Copyright  © Thomas Ward 2017

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Thomas Ward

Professor of Psychology, University of Alabama. Research focus on creativity.

5 thoughts on “The Value of What’s Old About New Ideas”

  1. Interesting baby device! Going by that logic, the best scream generator is a roller coaster … Deliver on, Moms!
    Don’t you think, ‘boosting creativity,’ has been pushed far beyond factors conducive to generating the same?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Interesting thought. I do think there’s a lot of hype. I also think many people are flowering and expressing great amounts of creativity. Others not so much. Anything that can get people to consider other perspectives will likely have value.

      Liked by 1 person

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