Blog: Monday, 22 March 2021

Everyone struggles to find inspiration; this master thesis research by Carmen Koetsier, cowritten with associate professor Dr Dirk Deichmann and research faculty member Dr Evgenia Dolgova, indicates the best places to look.

We regularly highlight research from our academics and research staff that we think is useful to businesses and organisations. But many of our master students also produce equally interesting – and useful – research for their master theses, the extended research project that forms the challenging conclusion to their academic studies. This new Excellent MSc Series introduces recent master theses that are particularly interesting for businesses and organisations, and the graduates behind them.

Where should you go for inspiration? Ask Google!

Inspiration arrives in strange and unusual ways and sometimes from the oddest of cues – to trigger inspiration, Friedrich Schiller (German playwright) smelled rotting apples, Charles Dickens walked through the night; and the American critic James Agee used to hang from his Manhattan skyscraper window by his fingertips.

But we live in the Google era, and for us, inspiration can be more easily accessed without having to go to such extremes. Research has found that if you want to have more ideas, all you need to do is start googling – but should you follow a certain path to find the best kind of inspiration? The results of the researchers’ experiment suggest that googling in an effective way during a specific kind of break from a creative task produces the best ideas. Here they describe what they did.

Finding a thesis topic takes creativity and I did use Google myself. It took a while before I realised that I was googling to find a new idea and that I did this almost every time I needed an idea

Creativity or distraction?

A number of studies have looked at surfing the internet as a way to distract yourself, but given that it’s the first resource most people turn to when looking for answers, we wanted to see if it could help with creativity.

We hypothesized that allowing people to take a break from a creative work task by searching for information using Google may significantly boost their creativity when they get back to work. Our theory was that exposure to a variety of information from different sources would spark new ideas that had not occurred to them before.

To find out whether googling could help boost creativity, we asked 152 people to concentrate on a short and creative task; to name as many different uses for an egg carton as they could in four minutes. Each person was placed into one of three groups. First, they all had two minutes to start thinking of uses for egg cartons, after which they were told to stop for a break. After the break, they all went back to their egg carton ideas task for another two minutes.

But each of the three groups were instructed to take their breaks in different ways so that we could test the effectiveness of two ways of googling.

1. Specific searches

Participants in Group 1 were told to use their break to search on Google in a constrained way, looking only for answers to a specified factual question that was unrelated to the creative task of thinking of ways to use the egg cartons. We asked them to look up how many different apple tree species there are in the Netherlands and what they are called.

2. Search freely

Participants in Group 2 were also told to use Google during their break, but they could search freely for anything that could help them with the creative task of thinking of ways to use egg cartons.

3. Only an interruption

Group 3 served as a control group. Participants had no real break, but we did separate the first and second two-minute sessions during which they were thinking of egg carton ideas. This allowed us to observe the creativity in the control group in the last two minutes and to compare it with those of Groups 1 and 2.

Later, when we rated participants’ ideas for novelty, usefulness, fluency and flexibility, we found that Group 1, whose googling was limited to looking only for apple tree species, were no more creative than the control group. However, Group 2, who googled freely for anything that could help them with the egg carton ideas creative task, did actually find more diverse ideas such as using the carton as insulation material, for storing jewellery, or making a boat.


Wider inspiration from searching freely

Not only did Group 2 – the group allowed to search freely – have 73 per cent more ideas after the break than participants in Group 1 whose searches were constrained, and 54 per cent more ideas than participants in the control group, but also ideas from Group 2 had a much wider and more diverse range of applications.

We put everyone’s ideas into 11 categories, such as using the egg carton as storage (for leftover paint, for example), using it as a wellness device (e.g., for scratching your back), or as sportswear (such as a protection patch for roller skaters).

Googling freely, as Group 2 did, led to 52 per cent more diversity of ideas in these 11 categories than googling in the constrained way, like Group 1, and 41 per cent more diversity of ideas than not googling at all, like the control group.

The results of our experiment suggest that the effect of taking a break from a creative task depends on what people do in that break.


Don’t just use a distraction

Simply being distracted by constrainedly googling for something that is unrelated to the creative task at hand may not be an effective way to enhance creativity. Instead, our results show that an unconstrained search on Google to find relevant information for the creative task constitutes a more effective break because it lets people overcome fixation and dead ends during their idea generation task.

But before you start googling, it’s worth keeping three caveats in mind. First, the subjects in this study were all digital natives, that is, people young enough to have grown up with search engines; Google’s impact on older people could be different. Second, we used Google searches but spending time on a social media platform like Facebook, Instagram or Pinterest would probably have a similar effect. And finally, Group 2, who were allowed to unconstrained Google searches did not suggest more original or useful ways to use egg cartons, just more ways and more diverse ways.

Dr. D. (Dirk) Deichmann
Associate Professor
Rotterdam School of Management (RSM)
Erasmus University Rotterdam
Dirk Deichmann
Dr E. (Evgenia) Dolgova
Visiting Researcher
Evgenia Dolgova

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