Feb 28, 2012
Doing something in an unconventional way, such as fixing breakfast in the “wrong” order, violates an expectation of how the world usually works and how actions usually unfold. When someone personally and actively experiences such unconventional events, she is presumably pushed outside her comfort zone and thus “learns” a lesson: “The world can be different. I can do things differently.” Therefore, when she encounters a new situation or problem, she is now able to take an unusual route to a more creative solution.
Psychologists call this ability of thinking outside the box “cognitive flexibility.” This is the ability to find new uses for old objects, make rich connections between ideas, and solve problems using unbeaten paths. My favorite example of a film character high in cognitive flexibility is detective Columbo (played by actor Peter Falk), who can see clues in a different light and make unusual connections that eventually help catch the criminal.
In two studies, we showed that being exposed to simple unconventional events, such as preparing breakfast in the “wrong” order, increased cognitive flexibility. Furthermore, these effects were found only when people actively participated in the unconventional activities. Just seeing someone else perform the activities was not enough. One explanation could be that people only learn that “the world can work differently” if they’ve directly experienced it themselves. Seeing someone else doing it could be easily discarded as a quirk of the other person (the viewer might think, for example, “He did it, but I could never do it. It wouldn’t work for me.”). Accordingly, it might not provide a personal experience with the same potential for changing someone’s personal mindset. For example, think about the last funeral you’ve seen in a movie; now, think about the funeral of someone dear to you. Surely, the latter would have had a different impact.
These findings speak to current policies on immigration. Previous research by Dean Simonton of the University of California, Davis showed that periods of immigration have been historically followed by exceptional creative achievement, even among the local population. Our findings suggest a potential explanation: Immigrants bring the new customs and ideas that provide unusual and unexpected experiences for the locals, and thus may have a lasting impact on their ability to think outside the box.
Rodica Damian is a doctoral candidate in psychology at the University of California, Davis.