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How to stay creative in the data age

January 26, 2021
Creativity imagination and dreams concept with child painting in the air

Try this 3-question quiz:

  1. A bat and a ball cost $1.10. The bat costs a dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?
  2. If it takes 5 machines 5 minutes to make 5 widgets, how long would it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets?
  3. In a lake, there is a patch of lily pads. Every day the patch doubles in size. If it takes 48 days for the patch to cover the entire lake, how long would it take for the patch to cover half the lake?

In each case, an answer pops into your head. It’s probably wrong. Could you tell? Did you feel that something was off? And, if so, were you able to suppress the urge to blurt out the number that came to mind and instead do some calculations?

The answers are:

  1. Intuitive answer: 10, correct answer, 5
  2. Intuitive answer: 100, correct answer, 5
  3. Intuitive answer: 24, correct answer, 47

This is a common test for reflective thinking and is appropriately called the Cognitive Reflection Test. Less than 20% of the US population bother to engage system 2 and do some math. Even at MIT, only 48% of those tested answer correctly. At Princeton, it’s 26%.

So, if you are like most people who haven’t seen the test before, you answered incorrectly and that doesn’t feel good. So how should you think about “passing” or “failing” this test?

As humans rely more and more on data for decision making, it’s important to value effortful thinking over intuition because AI and Big Data operate beyond the limits of human intuition. We simply won’t have reliable intuitions when up against the hyperspace of vast data and algorithms that can spin and weave un-intuitive patterns. However, as we rely more and more on machines that are best operating in predictable situations where past data are representative of future patterns, we run into a paradox. The “paradox of intuition” says that human intuition excels in increasingly unpredictable situations but the success of our intuition becomes increasingly unpredictable.

One way to look at performance on the test is to investigate the downside of engaging more deliberative thinking. Research shows that high levels of reflection—more deliberation, more analytical approaches, going to the data, engaging in the details—can have a negative impact on creativity. Intuitively (!) this makes sense but the picture is a little complicated.

Cognitive reflection does not appear to be a significant contributor one way or the other for creativity involving convergent thinking—where ideas are evaluated. What matters most is a mix of experience and raw cognitive ability.

But for divergent thinking—the process of coming up with ideas—high levels of cognitive reflection seem to impair the creative process, specifically in the number of ideas generated and in their diversity across different categories.

Individuals characterized by high levels of reflection may be less able to rely on their intuitive, autonomous mind which can also be needed for unleashing one’s creative power.
Corgnet et al

While some cognitive reflection may be necessary to shift between the generative and evaluative processes involved in the production of new ideas, it’s important to keep intuition—and those who like to use it—at the table.