Category Archives: Human nature

Brainstorming really is dumb

The dreaded memo has come around again – management has called another brainstorming session. They are getting people together to solve a problem or, more commonly, to discuss future trends or challenges for the organization.

You cringe when remembering the previous awkward sessions, when too many flip charts were filled with half-baked “ideas.” But the managers seemed to be pleased that “people were involved.” If you are an introvert, you remember the sessions as downright painful. And those flip charts that were so important that day – they were soon forgotten as people returned to their usual work.

But everyone says they had a fun day, so we know the next memo will come around soon enough.

Brainstorming has been described as the placebo in the management medicine kit – everyone believes that it works despite clear evidence that it does not. A recent Fast Company article has declared, “brainstorming is dumb.” Brainstorming continues to be popular even though major studies have shown that positive results are rare, at best, and viable alternatives are readily available.

Getting people together to propose new ideas seems, on the surface, like a good thing. However, as the Fast Company article describes, “just because you throw people together doesn’t mean wonderful things happen.” Others have been more critical, describing brainstorming as nothing more than executive entertainment.

So, what does the research say, and what are the alternatives to brainstorming?

To dig into this, we first have to review where brainstorming came from, and how it was supposed to work. Alex Osborn, an advertising executive, made brainstorming popular — most notably in his 1953 book Applied Imagination. Brainstorming was described as a wonderful group creativity technique that could be used to generate great ideas or solve hard problems. The term came from the idea of storming a problem like a group of commandos, with each “stormer” attacking the same objective.

Osborn was quite detailed in describing how brainstorming should be done. He established instructions for brainstorming sessions, many of which are now ignored. Osborn said that brainstorming sessions should:

  • Involve groups of about 12 people, or perhaps less
  • Avoid judging ideas
  • Strive for idea quantity, because quantity leads to quality
  • Promote divergent thinking and wild ideas
  • Welcome combinations and improvements on ideas

Perhaps the most overlooked principles in Osborn’s technique were:

  • Carefully choose the topic to be amenable to idea generation and as specific as possible
  • Provide pre-session training on the technique
  • Provide background information and orientation to the problem before the session

Osborn claimed that brainstorming, conducted with these principles, produced 44% more ideas than people working alone. With this evidence, and the attractiveness of the sessions, brainstorming took off and was widely adopted in many organizations.

Almost immediately, there were criticisms. Soon after Osborn’s book was published, researchers reported that, contrary to the doctrine, individuals often performed better than groups. Promoters of the technique argued, however, that those studies used questionable designs — one widely quoted study compared people working in groups versus individuals working alone, but all participants received brainstorming instructions. So, they argued, this was not a fair test of the technique.

Questions about how to properly test brainstorming remain today. Should we compare?

  • Brainstorming groups vs. brainstorming individuals
  • Brainstorming groups vs. other groups
  • Number of ideas vs. quality of ideas
  • Variety of ideas vs. novelty of ideas
  • With facilitator vs. without facilitator
  • Pre-existing groups vs. random groups

With so many open questions, it should be no surprise that studies that test brainstorming have come up with inconsistent results. But very often, the results are negative, suggesting that brainstorming may not actually work as advertised.

A review by Scott Isaksen examined 90 different studies and found that brainstorming was often not effective. The review also showed that many of the principles proposed by Osborn were not followed in the studies, leading to questions about the validity of the tests. Other studies have often found that individuals produced more, better ideas. Researchers have even proposed that working in groups could actually inhibit the creative process, perhaps due to nervousness, free riding by some participants, and “group think” where teams fixate on a few early ideas.

With the tests of brainstorming showing mixed results, people have started to consider modifications to the original Osborn principles. Some have argued that the lack of criticism, something that Osborn thought was crucial for allowing creativity to flourish, might actually be a problem. Their studies showed that adding debate and criticism to the brainstorming sessions actually led to more ideas.

Other people have started to question the role of the group interaction. With recent tech developments, researchers have started to examine electronic brainstorming, where people work at computers or online. When online, people can work anonymously while still participating in groups, perhaps using a shared editing space or chat service. Working electronically might reduce some of the inhibiting social factors of group work, such as nervousness or introverted personalities.

Another derivation of the original brainstorming technique is brainwriting where, instead of sharing ideas out loud in a group session, people write their ideas down and pass them around. Others can read the ideas and perhaps build on them, while continuing to work on their own ideas. The Fast Company article suggests that brainwriting, done best when writing both alone and in groups, can be a lot less dumb.

So, when the memo comes around again, propose an alternative? Try brainwriting or electronic brainstorming. Groups should exchange ideas when working on a problem, but they should also work alone, probably before they work in groups. The 1950s-style, awkwardly social, too-man-flip-chart sessions are not the best way to come up with good ideas.

Suggested Reading

Brainstorming Is Dumb. https://www.fastcodesign.com/3062292/evidence/brainstorming-is-dumb

Groupthink: The brainstorming myth. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/01/30/groupthink

10 New Rules For Brainstorming Without Alienating Introverts. https://www.fastcompany.com/3067769/the-science-of-work/10-new-rules-for-brainstorming-without-alienating-introverts

Optimize your naps

It turns out that there may be an optimal time and length for the best nap.

New research involving 3,000 Chinese seniors suggests that naps soon after lunch, lasting about about an hour, were the best. Good naps let the seniors function as if they were 5 years younger.

The difference in overall cognition associated with these napping groups was similar to or greater than the decline in cognition associated with a 5-year increase in age.”

Source: The Best Nap Time For Big Mental Health Boost – PsyBlog

Avoiding mental rabbit holes

How can you stay calm under pressure? Are there mental techniques you can use to help you cope under stress? A recent article provides some interesting answers based on interviews with a bomb disposal technician.

Something’s going wrong. You’re worried and your mind starts to race. Your old friend Panic is nuzzling up to you and wants to snuggle. Your brain starts asking, “What if X happens? What if Y happens? What if? What if? What if?”

Navy [bomb disposal] techs refers to this as “the rabbit hole.” And if you go down it, things are going to get very bad very fast.

Source: How To Be Calm Under Pressure: 3 Secrets From A Bomb Disposal Expert

More research questioning brain training

Can playing games increase your skills at sports and other tasks? Some research and commercial products suggest that they can, but other researchers are skeptical. A recent article in the NY Times examines a neurological game said to increase athletic performance.

But the notion that practice at one task could effectively bolster abilities in another — called transfer — has long been disputed. In 1906, the psychologist Edward L. Thorndike found that rigorous practice helped students’ ability to estimate the areas of rectangles, but it did not help them estimate the areas of other shapes. Another century’s worth of research has continued to reshape and redefine, expand and restrict this line of thinking. Sir Charles Sherrington, the Nobel Prize-winning neurophysiologist, also believed that “acquisition of a habit is not transferable beyond its application.” K. Anders Ericsson’s seminal study on expertise — the so-called 10,000 hours rule — emphasized training that was specific to the skill. This meant that memorizing an extraordinary amount of numbers is not likely to yield improvement in your recall of names. Practicing Tetris can improve your ability to play Tetris, but it probably won’t help you get better at juggling.

Source: Keep Your Eye on the Balls to Become a Better Athlete

When is brain development finished?

This is an interesting article on how the brain develops, and whether it ever finishes. There is also an interesting discussion of teenage thinking and emotions.

The human brain reaches its adult volume by age 10, but the neurons that make it up continue to change for years after that. … The pruning in the occipital lobe, at the back of the brain, tapers off by age 20. In the frontal lobe, in the front of the brain, new links are still forming at age 30, if not beyond.

Source: You’re an Adult. Your Brain, Not So Much. – The New York Times

Tattoos make men more attractive … to men

Men with tattoos are likely to provide serious competition for a woman’s attention, at least in the eyes of other guys, but women themselves actually aren’t that impressed. … the female participants didn’t rate the tattooed gentlemen as more attractive; moreover, they considered them worse prospects as partners and parents.

https://digest.bps.org.uk/2016/12/21/men-think-women-will-be-impressed-by-a-tattoo-but-theyre-not/

 

Wear the red dress?

Are women really more attractive if they wear red? Research results used to say “yes”, but replicating those studies is proving to be difficult.

… nothing, it seems, is straightforward in psychology any more. A team of Dutch and British researchers has just published three attempts to replicate the red effect in the open-access journal Evolutionary Psychology, including testing whether the effect is more pronounced in a short-term mating context, which would be consistent with the idea that red signals sexual availability. However, not only did the research not uncover an effect of mating context, all three experiments also failed to demonstrate any effect of red on attractiveness whatsoever.

Source https://digest.bps.org.uk/2016/12/12/wardrobe-malfunction-three-failed-attempts-to-replicate-the-finding-that-red-increases-attractiveness/

 

The science of gift shopping – Don’t try so hard

Research has been done on what gifts people like to receive. It turns out that simple and straight forward is often the best approach.

Social scientists bear glad tidings for the holiday season. After extensively observing how people respond to gifts, they have advice for shoppers: You don’t have to try so hard. You’re not obliged to spend hours finding just the right gift for each person on your list. Most would be just as happy with something quick and easy. This may sound too good to be true, but rest assured this is not a ploy by some lazy Scrooges in academia.

Source: The Perfect Gift? It’s the One They Asked For – The New York Times

Death by selfie

Here is interesting research on the growing phenomenon of getting yourself killed while trying to shoot a selfie. Apparently, the goal is to build a kind of this-is-a-dangerous-selfie warning app.

In 2014, 15 people died while taking a selfie; in 2015 this rose to 39, and in 2016 there were 73 deaths in the first eight months of the year. That’s more selfie deaths than deaths due to shark attacks. That raises an interesting question—how are these people dying, and is there a way to prevent these kinds of accidents?

Source: Data Scientists Chart the Tragic Rise of Selfie Deaths

and the research paper can be found at https://lnkd.in/fpdiVwx

 

Correlations and milk

Another example of the importance of understanding the relationship between correlation and causation.

In a study of more than 2,700 children aged one to six, Toronto researchers found that those who drank whole milk had a body mass index score almost a full unit lower than kids who drank one per cent or two per cent milk.That’s comparable to the difference between having a healthy weight and being overweight, said Dr. Jonathon Maguire, a pediatrician at St. Michael’s Hospital who led the study.

Did drinking whole milk make the kids thinner, or are heavier kids drinking low-fat milk because they are heavier?

Source: Kids who drink whole-fat milk are leaner, study finds – Macleans.ca