Character  &  Context

Why Confronting Paradoxes Can Give You a Creative Boost

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In either the social or corporate world, we often face contradictory expectations. Your friend expects you to maintain regular contact, but to give them personal space. Your boss expects you to follow rules, but to remain flexible and adaptive. You compete to outperform your coworkers, but collaborate with them in a team to deliver high quality work. Researchers call these simultaneously present, contradictory yet interrelated demands paradoxes. These seemingly conflicting demands and practices could be confusing and challenging. But although paradoxes can be coupled with conflict and tension, there is a bright side to confronting paradoxes: they can engender creativity. 

Harnessing paradoxes to boost creativity

To thrive in complex and conflicting environments, creativity – the generation of both novel and useful ideas – is key. Research suggests that creative advantages are more likely to come about if people adopt paradoxical frames, which are mental templates that encourage them to recognize and embrace contradictions (see Luscher & Lewis, 2008; Miron-Spektor et al., 2011).

Paradoxical frames facilitate “both/and” thinking. When people entertain “both/and” solutions that embrace multiple elements simultaneously, they might experience higher conflict. (This is opposed to “either/or” solutions that consider one element and ignore another.) However, this experience of conflict can destabilize established conceptions and give rise to out-of-the-box thinking.

The handheld digital pet “Tamagotshi” that hit the market in the late 90s is a great example of paradoxical creativity. The notion of a “virtual pet” radically defies people’s expectations that keeping a pet is a hassle and an electronic device is lifeless. Tamagotshi integrated these contradictory elements. Such “both/and” thinking is in contrast with “either/or” thinking that simplifies or polarizes opposing elements. If people approach paradoxes in terms of “either/or” strategies, they are likely to overlook complex inter-relationships between opposing concepts and do worse in creative integration.

For whom do paradoxes benefit creativity? Endorsement of the “middle ground”

Prior research found a paradox–creativity link in Western samples. But would this happen among East Asians?

We were curious about this question because members of Western and East Asian cultures differ systematically in the way they interpret paradoxes. Western approaches tend to emphasize differentiation and synergy of contradictory elements to allow full existence of both elements simultaneously. In contrast, East Asian dialectical approaches tend to emphasize middle-ground solutions that acknowledge each of the contradictory elements in moderate degrees. Tolerance for paradoxes is also present in the Confucian philosophy of the “Doctrine of the Mean” (Zhongyong), which values harmonizing conflicts, avoiding extremes, and compromising instead of directly confronting conflicts. Going back to the Tamagotschi example, taking a “middle ground” approach would have likely resulted in less creative ideas; for example, products such as a dog-shaped robot or a movable dog toy for kids, which hold onto the defining features of an animal and an electronic device.

In our first study, Taiwanese students read about two elements in product design – creativity and efficiency – framed as paradoxical (e.g., “This product is both unique and efficiently built”) or not (e.g. “This project is unique and creative”). Next, participants were asked to generate creative chocolate designs. Unlike prior findings observed in the West, activating paradoxical frames did not help the Taiwanese students become more creative.

Then, we examined whether endorsement of the “middle ground” approach explained these results. We primed paradoxical frames by having participants recall paradoxical statements (e.g., “It is paradoxical that standing is more tiring than walking”). We found that the conflict induced by paradoxical frames only boosted creativity among the Taiwanese students who did not endorse the “middle ground” approach as much. Another study compared Singaporeans (East Asians) who typically endorse the middle ground approach more and Israelis (Westerners) who typically endorse the middle ground approach less. Results revealed that creative advantages of conflict emerged mainly for the Israelis, but not their Singaporean counterparts. Another study showed that endorsing the middle ground approach less causes people to feel more conflicted in the face of contradictory positions and in turn to reap more creative benefits. 

Why do paradoxes benefit creativity? The role of integrative complex thinking

But why do people who endorse the middle ground approach less harness more creative benefits of paradoxical frames?  We thought that endorsing the middle ground approach less prepares people to identify distinctions between contradictory perspectives and to forge conceptual integration between these perspectives, a process we call integrative complex thinking.

To test whether integrative complex thinking explains the benefits of paradoxes, we asked some participants to engage high integrative complex thinking during a negotiation task by prompting them to process thoroughly the opposing interests of the buyer and the seller by taking both of their perspectives. Other participants engaged low integrative complex thinking by considering the interests of only the buyer or the seller.  We found that creative deal-making was more likely to occur among the low endorsers of middle ground after they engaged high integrative complex thinking. High endorsers of middle ground, however, could not benefit from integrative complex thinking and were less adept at closing a deal with creative win-win solutions.

This research showcases that individual and cultural differences exist in how paradoxes are interpreted and managed. For those who don’t endorse the middle ground approach, paradoxes fuel creative insights by encouraging people to fully and simultaneously embrace contradictory demands. The creative benefits of paradox lie in the thorough differentiation and synthesis of contradictory demands through integrative complex thinking.

Dr. Angela Leung is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Singapore Management University.

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