The Sound of Creativity

Your initial thoughts on a new product design are due tomorrow. Which means you better shut your door and block out all distractions so you can get those creative juices flowing. Right?

Wrong, says Ravi Mehta, assistant professor of business administration at the University of Illinois. What you actually need to stir those creative juices is some noise. About 70 decibels’ worth—equivalent to a radio or TV on in the background, or someone running a vacuum cleaner.

So much for the stereotypical librarian shushing anything above a whisper, or the junior high teacher calling for silence in his writing class, so students can “be creative without being disturbed.”

Actually, a bit of disturbance does wonders for creativity, says Mehta, who headed a study that looked at how ambient noise affects creativity. “We actually got the idea for the study when we were in a noisy coffee shop,” he says. “One of my colleagues said ‘With all this background noise, do you think we can come up with a good idea [for a study]?’ I replied, ‘This is background noise; it is distracting. It actually should help us think outside of the box.’”

Mehta, whose research emphasis is on creativity, knew that studies abounded in examining the impact of noise on human cognition and behavior, but the literature was scarce on the effects of noise on creativity. So he and colleagues Juliet Zhu of the University of British Columbia and Amar Cheema of the University of Virginia designed five experiments to study the relationship between noise and creativity.

Here’s what they found:

  • A moderate level of ambient noise—again, the ideal is 70 decibels— induces processing disfluency. In other words, it disrupts the flow of thought. And such disfluency leads to abstract thinking, which in turn enhances creativity.
  • There is an inverted-U relationship between noise level and creativity. Creativity is not enhanced with either low or high noise levels. It’s only in the middle—with that moderate level— that creativity increases.
  • Increasing levels of noise lead to higher construal levels—so both moderate and high levels of noise result in more abstract processing than is achieved at low levels of noise. But when the noise level gets too high, creativity is inhibited.

The Power of Distraction

“Distraction makes you think at a broader level, a more abstract level,” Mehta says. “So moderate noise is good. But we found that while distraction increases creativity, your brain’s ability to process information goes down as distraction increases. So when people are too distracted, they may not be processing the relevant information.”

Mehta and his colleagues measured the creativity of students by using the Remote Associates Test, an assessment widely used to evaluate creative thinking in both psychology and market research. Students were given three or four stimulus words that related to a fourth or fifth target word not given. Their task was to come up with that target word. For example, for “shelf,” “read,” and “end,” the target word was “book.” The students worked through a series of stimulus words in varying noise conditions. For background noise, the researchers piped in voices, traffic noise, airplanes flying overhead, and other sounds that would be heard in an environment similar to a roadside restaurant.

“We didn’t find any difference between 42 and 50 decibels,” Mehta says. (Forty decibels is roughly equivalent to a library, birdcalls, or the lowest limit of urban ambient sounds. Fifty decibels equates to a quiet suburb or conversation at home.) “So we went up to 70 decibels. That’s where we found the highest creativity. The maximum decibel level for creativity was 72 to 74 decibels. That is what you find in a normal consumer environment. When people are talking, it is about 72 decibels.”

Mehta cautions that the ideal ambient noise level depends on the type of work you are doing. Creativity is enhanced by moderate ambient noise, but analytical, detail-oriented work may not be.

“Most of the time the work we do is not creative,” he says. “We’re not thinking about new ideas all the time, or solving problems, or developing new products. For example, when I’m in my office writing a paper, I don’t want distractions.

“When I’m thinking about a new idea, though, I like to go to a coffee shop. I like to work from there, where there is background noise and I can see some movement. It helps us to think out of the box if we have some moderate level of distraction. But if I’m writing an academic paper, I don’t want any distractions.”

He adds that his study did not look at the ideal sound level for analytical work, though he says it seems logical that such work would be best carried out in quieter environments.

Creative Spaces

Sometimes noisier environments and big open spaces are just what the corporate doctor ordered. “If a company relies on a lot of creativity, open space will help spur that creativity,” Mehta says. He points to the example of Google, which has open office spaces. “They want people to come and talk,” he says. “You get that ambient sound through people talking in the background and moving around. You see people working and talking. You get this natural distraction—but you also have spaces where people can go when they don’t want distractions.”

That ambient sound, he says, can also be piped through speakers, but his study didn’t test for the effects of listening to music while working. “There are so many different types of music,” he says. “That would take a study all its own.”

But open spaces and background noise can only do so much to enhance creativity. You have to already be creative to reap the benefits. “People are different in their levels of creativity,” he explains. “It makes sense that this impact on creativity will be greater for those who have higher levels of creativity, because if I don’t have any creativity, how can I increase it?”

He adds that creativity can be improved through training. “If someone is being creative over and over, thinking about problems and how to solve them, then they become more creative,” he says.

Applying the Research

Mehta’s research applies not only to creativity among office workers, but among marketers as well. For example, he says, marketers might consider equipping showrooms with a moderate level of ambient noise to encourage customers to buy their new and innovative products. He found that his subjects were more willing to buy innovative products when they had a moderate level of ambient noise in the background.

This creativity enhancement extends beyond the office and showroom, too. Mehta notes that people use creativity away from work all the time—whether it’s subbing for a missing recipe ingredient, decorating a room, or solving various homeowner problems.

Want to increase the likelihood of arriving at a creative solution in your home? Turn on the radio or TV. Or get out the vacuum.

“We as consumers are being creative, working things out,” Mehta says. “And that process of being creative is enjoyable for many people. I know my intrinsic happiness is enhanced when I am being creative.”

A final word on enhancing creativity through ambient noise: You can get too much of a good thing. “If you are exposed to background noise for eight hours a day, that might have a negative effect,” Mehta says. “But instances of 15 to 25 minutes of background noise may help.”

- Tom Hanlon