Change Agent: Jeremy Dean

Making Habits,

Breaking Habits

Why We Do Things, Why We Don’t, and How to Make Any Change Stick

An Excerpt

Making & Breaking Habits

“What if” type questions, or “counter-factual statements,” can be used to help us escape from habitual ways of thinking. Research led by Keith Markman from Ohio University has studied counter-factual thoughts in a series of experiments. They found a vital distinction between additive and subtractive mind-sets. Additive mindsets focus on the addition of something to a situation; for example, say you are wet after getting caught in a shower; you might wish you had an umbrella. Subtractive mindsets take something away: in this case, you might imagine a world where it hadn’t rained.

It might seem like a very subtle distinction, but across three experiments, the research found that each promoted different ways of thinking. The additive mind-set encourages people to think in a more expansive way, allowing them to generate more ideas. On the other hand, the subtractive mindset makes people think in a narrower, more analytical way, focusing their minds down on the relationships between the problem’s components. Both styles are vital in creativity, but at different stages. Sometimes, it’s necessary to think expansively while looking for new components and connections, while at other times, typically later on, it’s about working out how to fit the components together to make a working solution.

Returning to the TV program “Whose Line Is It Anyway?,” it’s easy to see how the format uses constraints and ‘what it’ questions to break the performers out of old habits. What the contestants don’t have, though, is time to come up with better ideas. We laugh at improvisational comedy partly because we knew it’s just been made up. Our standards are much higher for scripted comedy. Creative solutions to difficult problems need time to gestate, and psychological research agrees. Unfortunately, our first instinct is to follow a path we’ve explored before: habitual thinking once again. This can be a mistake.

The classic study on creative preparation, conducted by Jacob W. Getzels and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, asked art students to create a still-life painting of an object, which was later professionally evaluated. The study found that students judged to have created the best work were those who spent the longest preparing-thinking about the object itself and how they were going to use it. When Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi returned to the same people at 7 and 18 years later, he found that it was these measures of problem identification and construction the predicted the artist’s long-term success. Even 18 years later, artists who spent longer constructing the problem were more successful. This research, along with other findings, not only suggests constraints can benefit the creative process, but also that we need to give ourselves time to analyze the problem.

Unfortunately, the temptation with creative problems is to use habitual responses to get started on the solution immediately. Since problem construction seems like a waste of time, though, it may be the most important part of the creative process. The choices made in the early stages have a massive impact later. That’s why spending longer thinking about the problem before you dive in is likely to lead to higher levels of creativity in the final product. Like the art students painting a still-life, when the options are almost infinite, we need time to ponder the possibilities, and we will likely do better if we take time to consider them. Fools rush in where the more creative dare to tread.