Dim Light and Ambient Noise Increase Creativity … Not among skeptics

Here are two studies that got lots of social media mileage this week

  1. Dimming lights enhances creativity
  2. Right amount of ambient noise increases creativity

Quoting from the light study, Salon writes

during that all-important phase when you’re grasping for ideas, dim light appears to be a catalyst for creativity. “Darkness changes a room’s visual message,” the researchers explain, and one such message seems to be it’s safe to explore widely and let your imagination run free.

And Salon goes on to make general prescription for all of us

So if you’re struggling to finish that screenplay or come up with the next must-have app, you might try illuminating your workspace with one bare bulb of minimal wattage.s

Quoting from the ambient noise study,  99u writes

 moderate level of background noise creates just enough distraction to break people out of their patterns of thinking and nudge them to let their imagination wander, while still keeping them from losing their focus on the project all together. This distracted focus helps enhance your creativity.

And their recommendations are to roam about in hotel lobbies and coffee shop. If you cannot roam about they have Apps for that (with names like Coffitivity)

Before you give a second look to these studies, despite the fact that these are published in peer reviewed journals and found statistically significant difference, stop and ask some critical questions.

  1. Are the effects additive? So would it work better if we roamed about in dim coffee shops?
  2. The ambient noise study reports difference between 50dB and 70dB. How many other pairs did they test and reject before reporting on a pair that had statistically significant difference? (See green jelly beans cause acne). Only those sound levels that showed difference get reported and the rest get filed in the round filing cabinet. And journals like publishing only those studies that find statistically significant difference. Remember that when motivated researchers keep looking for something interesting they are bound to find it.
  3. What is the measure of creativity? Is that correct and relevant? The ambient noise study used Remote Associates Test while the dim light study used Creative Insights Problem. Why two different metrics by the two studies? Did they try all kinds of measures and picked the one that showed statistically significant difference? If you repeated the Dim Light experiment with Remote Associates Test and Ambient Noise experiment with Creative Insights Problem will the results hold?
  4. Let us say all these are answered in favor of the tests. Does that mean the results translate into real world that has far too many variables? How many hidden hypothesis did the two researchers took for granted in coming up with their results? How many of those will be violated in the real world?
  5. Does statistical significance mean economic significance? What is the economic impact of any perceived difference?
  6. Do you have means to measure creativity of your team that are based on real life results and  do not involve administering Remote Associates Test or Creative Insights Problem? Performance in tests like these is rarely an indication of actual job performance, as Google found out about brainteasers in job interviews.
  7. Don’t forget opportunity cost. You see here two recipes for improving creativity, you will find more if you look for them. All peer reviewed, I bet. Which one can you afford to pick? Or could you be investing your time and resources in something else instead of dimming lights and creating coffee shop noise?
  8. Even if you go on to dim lights or create coffee shop noise there is always Hawthorne effect.  Either your team will react to it, tell you that they are seeing improvement or you will convince yourself you are seeing improvement because you do not want to be wrong about your decision to pipe coffee shop noise through office speakers.

Finally it behooves us to keep in mind the great academic fraud of Diederik Stapel.  I am not saying anything remotely close to what Stapel did happened in these two studies. But I am urging you to start with high skepticism and place the further burden of proof of applications on the researchers and on those writing derivative works based on the research.

Your opportunity cost of internalizing these studies and acting on them is far too high. You don’t want to bump into other Salon readers wandering in dim and noisy hotel lobbies.

If you want an excuse to get your work done in a coffee shop, do it. But do not try to justify it with scientific reason.

Finally, if you are allowed to believe in only one of the two studies which one will you believe?

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