Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Abstract Exemplars Provide More Creativity

In the previous post we learned about conceptual expansion, a common form of creative behavior. Conceptual expansion is the process of accessing highly specific examples of a particular domain as a starting point for creative behavior. Conception expansion provides for rapid solutions that are likely to be accepted by the target audience due to familiarity. However, a common drawback is that the new creative product may be constrained by unnecessary properties of the specific exemplar.
Today we will learn about the benefits of using more abstract (as opposed to specific) exemplars as a starting point for creative behavior. 

Abstract Exemplars Provide More Creativity
Thomas Ward found evidence to suggest that the way in which you frame a creative task can affect the creativity of the product produced.[1] Specifically, more abstract exemplars, instead of specific ones, will allow for greater creativity.[2] In his study Ward asked participants to imagine and draw an alien that might exist on a different planet.[3] He found that participants that were instructed to consider that the aliens must need to survive and navigate the conditions of their environments attained higher ratings of creativity in their drawings than both participants who were not instructed at all and participants who were instructed to think of specific earth animals as examples. As Ward put it, 

Because stored properties at higher levels of abstraction would be less specific and constraining and allow a wider range of possible instantiation (e.g., generic sense or organs vs. two eyes symmetrically placed in the head), more original products would be expected to result when people access knowledge in these more abstract ways.[4]

These findings on conceptual expansion, also known as the path-of-least-resistance model, has been replicated in other domains with participants similarly imagining novel fruits and tools based off of specific exemplars vs. more conceptualized properties. And similarly those who used a more conceptualized abstract approach showed more creativity.[5]
Real Life Examples
These findings can be generalized to real word examples. For instance, if one was trying to think of a new animated comedy series to make they could think of the best current series. Take for example Family Guy. Family Guy is an adult cartoon featured around an American family with a talking pet, full of absurd and unrealistic plot events, crass humor, jokes focusing of pop culture and current events, and the comedy styling of Seth McFarlane. If you were trying to create a new show, one could think of Family Guy as an exemplar of a successful comedy and slightly tweak it to create a new product. The extreme similarity between shows like Family Guy, Cleveland Show, and American Dad provides support for this path-of-least-resistance model. And indeed, the common critique of these shows in fact is that they lack creativity. 

However if more abstract exemplars were used, more creative comedy shows could have easily been created. For instance, perhaps the studio execs could just ask a writer to produce a show that serves the same demographics. The show must include humor that appeals to both an older audience, but enough silliness to draw in younger audiences as well. And also instruct the writer to remember that since it is a cartoon they can have less realistic features in the show. Such a show will certainly be more rated as more original or creative than American Dad or The Cleveland Show. But will it be more successful?

A show that greatly deviates from the Family Guy strategy may not be accepted as an adult-themed comedy cartoon just in the same way that aliens that deviate too far from known earth animals might not be recognized as an animal at all.[6] Therefore, a good balance of both approaches can be suggested. An idea of an existing business venture may be used as a starting point for a new business venture – however an eye should be kept at more abstract considerations of what made the business venture successful instead of blindly accepting potentially needless properties of the exemplar business venture. [7]

[2] Id.
[3] Id. at 6.
[4]Id. at 8.
[5] Thomas B. Ward, Cognition, Creativity, and Entrepreneurship, Journal of Business Venturing 19.2 (2004), 183.
[6] Id. 184-85.
[7] Id. at 185.

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