There are many creativity tools that we research at Inventium that, although sound great on the surface, actually have inconsistent scientific evidence behind them. One such tool, which involves showing people surprising images such as: an Eskimo on a beach, or a hipster on the moon, or a footballer on an ice-hockey rink, has been found to both significantly improve and reduce divergent thinking. Recent research has just cracked why this is and I’m excited to share this new tool with you, with guidance on when to use it. Or, more appropriately, who to use it with!

What the described images above all have in common is that they violate people’s schemata (the internal rules used to make sense of the world). Looking at such images was anticipated to help break people out of their mindsets to generate more novel and diverse ideas. But, whether or not the tool works depends on a particular personality construct known as a Need for Structure. Let me explain further.

People who have a high need for structure desire predictability and prefer to work within their existing knowledge and structures. Therefore, they dislike uncertainty or oddity. So, when people with a high need for structure viewed the inconsistent schema this actually reduced divergent thinking because the images were perceived as threatening. On the other hand, people with a low need for structure reaped the benefits of looking at schema-inconsistent images; they generated significantly more divergent ideas compared to when they looked at schema-consistent images.

So, the takeaway tip is to match this tool to personality. Before getting people to look at a grandma skydiving, a priest in front of a mosque, or a monk in an office, assess the personality of the people. If they agree with statements such as “I enjoy having a clear and structured mode of life” and “I dislike situations that are uncertain”, it is likely that they have a high need for structure, which means the inconsistent schema tool will actually hurt their divergent thinking. However, if they disagree with the statements then whip out the hipster on the moon!

I’d love to hear your experiences, comments, or questions about this topic. Feel free to drop me a line at