Latent inhibition (LI) is a cognitive mechanism that categorizes previously experienced stimuli as irrelevant, but individual variation in
LI may allow creative people to draw on more experiences in making
novel associations (Carson et al. 2003). For most people, the ability
to minimize the attention paid to previously experienced stimuli is a
defense mechanism to avoid the type of overload that at the extremes
could lead to psychosis. Testing has shown that creative individuals
are more likely to exhibit low levels of LI, which may accord creatives
a greater inventory of unfiltered stimuli, increasing the odds of original associations (Carson et al. 2003). Furthermore, creatives differ in
the complexity of their association cortexes, the regions of the brain
that interpret information collected by the primary visual, auditory,
sensory, and motor regions (Andreason 2014). Lack of impulse and
imagery control by means of repression seems to give creatives fuller
access to experiences and greater opportunity to combine dissociated items (Dellis and Gaier 1970).
Access to more stimuli potentially could lead to the type of mental
dazzle (Katz 1950) that can obscure the structure of a problem,
making the solution more difficult. Yet creative thinkers are able to
“think globally as well as locally, distinguishing the forest from the
trees and thereby recognizing which questions are important and
which ones are not” (Sternberg and Lubart 1999). This flair for
distinguishing what is important from what is not (Policastro and
Gardner 1999) allows them to simplify their thinking, avoiding
the confusion of complexity to identify the essence of the problem,
the critical idea or issue (Runco 2014). As Gardner (2011) noted,
“Einstein’s special relativity paper is written with disarming simplicity and directness.” Einstein set out to find “the most comprehensive
yet simplifying axioms” (Gardner 2011) and stated, “A theory is the
more impressive the greater the simplicity of its premises, the more
different kinds of things it relates, and the more extended its area of
applicability” (Calaprice 2005). Similarly, Einstein’s contemporary,
physicist and Nobel laureate I. I. Rabi, said, “Once you are sophisticated, you know too much—far too much” (Gardner 2011).
Creative people seem to let more stimuli in yet avoid mental dazzle
with a talent for extracting order from disorder by simplifying a
problem to its essence. Although researchers often are struck with
how many eminent creators say their ideas were “obvious,” they are
“almost always the opposite of obvious to other people” typically
facing strong resistance (Andreason 2014). Unfortunately, most
people can be “blind to the obvious” and “blind to our blindness”
(Kahneman 2011a); creative vision is about opening your mind
more than your eyes.
Challenging assumptions, defocused attention, associative thought,
and a masterful grasp of the obvious are the keys to creativity. But
most would-be creative thinkers are trapped by confirmation bias,
belief perseverance, overconfidence, narrow framing, mental dazzle,
latent inhibitions, and habitual modes of thought; and rather than
challenging the obvious, we are blind to the obvious. Like the illu-
sionist who understands that the harder you look the less you see,
attractive retirement-income solutions have proven difficult to see
because much of the financial services industry has failed to identify
the problem by focusing on the symptoms rather than the essence.
The solutions that result reflect habitual modes of thought rather
than the redirection in thinking that retirement income calls for.
When people are presented with a new problem they attempt to
solve it by applying old solutions, and knowledge of old solutions
tends to block the imagination needed to see new solutions even
if the new solution is simpler and more efficient (Luchins 1942).
Subjects aware of an algorithm that solved one set of problems
developed a habitual mode of thought and struggled to adapt their
thinking when presented a new set of problems, with some unable
to solve one particular problem in the allotted time despite the
fact that those unaware of the old solution solved it easily with a
new simpler algorithm. The ability of participants to see the new
solution improved some when they were told to write “don’t be
blind” on their papers before seeing the second set of problems.
This tendency for knowledge to block imagination, known as the
“Einstellung effect,” affects experts as well as novices and is illustrated by much of the industry research that attempts to solve the
new problem of wealth distribution with assumptions and strategies used for the old problem of wealth accumulation. Examples
include the flawed assumptions that the inflation rate is synonymous with standard of living, that an expected return is a predictor of success for retirees, that a more-volatile investment policy
is key to greater long-term wealth, and that time always will allow
you to recover from losses.
The idea of tension between knowledge and creativity has a long
history in psychology and it is “widely assumed that too much
experience can leave one in ruts, so that one cannot go beyond
stereotyped responding” that makes it difficult to adapt thinking as
the world changes (Weisberg 1999). Of particular note is Simonton
(1984), a study of 300 eminent individuals that found the relationship between creative accomplishment and level of education was
a curvilinear inverted U, with the peak of creative accomplishment
occurring when subjects were approximately juniors in college.
More or less training was associated with less creativity. Success
stories of innovative college drop-outs such as Steve Jobs and Bill
Gates show that advanced education is not a prerequisite of creativity and cognitive psychologists have shown it can be a hindrance.
It is the overeducated dog that struggles with new tricks.
Finally, the creative thinker who correctly formulates the problem
and overcomes entrenched thinking to develop a creative solution
must convince others in order to transform those creative ideas into
innovative tools, materials, and products. In the IBM survey, CEOs
identified creativity as the number-one leadership quality for successful corporations, and management research has shown that
leaders with creative ability are more effective at promoting positive
change and inspiring followers (Goncalo 2011). Disruptive innovation is the holy grail of Silicon Valley start-ups, and it’s partly
responsible for the fact that average Fortune 500 CEO job tenure
has shortened from ten years in 2000 to less than five years today