Need to Brainstorm? Head to Starbucks

A clever and, yes, creative new study suggests that moderate background noise is a better spur to innovative thinking than the sound of silence.

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If you’re looking for a creative solution to some problem at work, don’t retreat into a chamber of solitude (or an office with the door closed) to ponder your dilemma in silence. Instead, head to the nearest café – hopefully, one where people are chatting and the baristas are busily scuttling about making cappuccinos and frappuccinos and generally making some noise. A clever and, yes, creative new study suggests that moderate background noise is a better spur to innovative thinking than the sound of silence.

I’ve always been a bit puzzled as to why I sometimes get my most creative work done while sitting in a crowded, bustling café. It turns out I’m not the only one — and the effect is not entirely the result of the sudden infusion of caffeine. Ravi Mehta, a business administration professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and two colleagues set out to explore the effect of moderate ambient noise on creative problem solving. In a series of experiments, the researchers found that a certain level of noise actually made it easier for experimental subjects to come up with clever new ideas. As the researchers put it:

For individuals looking for creative solutions to daily problems, such as planning a dinner menu based on limited supplies or generating interesting research topics to study, our findings imply that instead of burying oneself in a quiet room trying to figure out a solution, walking out of one’s comfort zone and getting into a relatively noisy environment (such as a cafe) may trigger the brain to think abstractly, and thus generate creative ideas.

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Isn’t all that noise a bit, you know, distracting? Actually, yes – and that’s the point, as Mehta and his colleagues explain in a new paper published in the Journal of Consumer Research. While a relatively quiet environment may make it easier to, say, plow through a book, a noisy environment can induce a certain degree of “disfluency” or “processing difficulty,” which can disrupt your normal way of thinking in such a way that it actually enhances the sort of abstract thinking that can spur real creativity.

But it’s not as simple as noise = creativity. Too much noise – like, say, someone with a jackhammer tearing up pavement right outside your office — really can make it hard to hear yourself think. The solution is to find a happy medium —  a place that is pleasantly noisy rather than jarringly loud. As the researchers put it:

[A] moderate … level of ambient noise induces processing disfluency, which leads to abstract cognition and consequently enhances creativity. A high level of noise, however, impairs creativity by reducing the extent of information processing.

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As you might expect from a paper in the Journal of Consumer Research, there’s something here for marketers too. The researchers’ experiments show that moderate levels of ambient noise can also spur consumers to consider buying more innovative products. Indeed, the researchers suggest that

in order to encourage adoption of new and innovative products, marketers might consider equipping their showrooms with a moderate level of ambient noise.

The authors do have one major caveat: The creativity enhancing powers of moderate noise may only work fully with people who are naturally creative to begin with. Sorry, dullards. You’re on your own.