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Author: Dr Simon Moss


Brainstorming is a technique, designed to enhance the creativity of individuals and groups. Osborn (1957) stipulated the four key principles that underpin brainstorming. First, individuals should generate as many ideas as possible. Second, they should refrain from criticizing or evaluating these ideas. Third, individuals should strive to combine and extend previous ideas. Fourth, individuals should generate wild, outrageous ideas.

According to recent research, brainstorming can be very effective, but only in specific circumstances. Litchfield (2009), for example, showed that brainstorming is most constructive when individuals strive to exceed specific goals, such as "30 or more suggestions".

Studies into the utility of brainstorming

Some preliminary studies, in the 1960s, challenged the efficacy of brainstorming. Gerlach, Schutz, Baker, and Mazer (1964), for example, compared two approaches. First, some participants followed the four principles that represent brainstorming. Other participants, in contrast, were assigned a vague goal-to propose as many ideas as possible. The originality of solutions did not differ significantly between the two conditions, although the statistical power might have been limited.

Nevertheless, brainstorming can be effective in specific circumstances. Overall, brainstorming has been shown to augment the number of solutions that individuals propose (Paulus & Brown, 2003).

Factors that amplify or inhibit the merits of brainstorming

Specificity of goals

Litchfield (2009) showed that brainstorming principles are especially effective when individuals also strive to exceed a specific, challenging target. In a series of studies, participants completed a puzzle, designed to assess their creativity. For example, they needed to uncover the benefits and drawbacks that would ensue if everyone, after 2006, was born with an additional thumb.

Some, but not all, participants were encouraged to apply the principles that underpin brainstorming. In addition, a portion of the participants were assigned a vague goal, such as "to generate as many ideas" as possible, whereas other participants were assigned a specific goal, such as "to generate 30 ideas".

Generally, when individuals applied the principles of brainstorming, they generated more suggestions. In one of the studies, when individuals were less committed to their goals, the benefits of brainstorming were especially pronounced when these targets were specific rather than vague. Specific goals, coupled with brainstorming, generated the most suggestions.

The mechanism that underpins the benefits of this blend of approaches has not been established definitively. Conceivably, specific, challenging goals can be imagined vividly& hence, these goals can foster positive affect and commitment. Nevertheless, these precise targets can also underscore the prospect of failure-which can evoke negative emotions and thus compromise the flexibility of cognitions. Brainstorming, which is intended to diminish the emphasis on failure, might temper these negative emotions and improve flexibility (Baumann & Kuhl, 2005;; Bolte, Goschke, & Kuhl, 2003).

Thus, the principle to abstain from criticism might be especially effective when goals are specific. This possibility could reconcile the observation that practices that are intended to curb criticism or conflict can actually stymie the expression of ideas, at least in some settings (Nemeth, Personnaz, Personnaz, & Goncalo, 2004). This principle, although often considered the core of brainstorming (Parnes, 1963), might be more useful when specific goals are pursued and anxiety is likely.

Team versus individual settings

Many practitioners, and indeed some researchers, apply brainstorming in team settings. Several studies, for example, have investigated the social motivations and dynamics that underpin the benefits of brainstorming (e.g., Brown & Paulus, 1996). Nevertheless, brainstorming is also applicable when individuals reflect upon solutions alone.

Indeed, as several studies have shown, brainstorming is more likely to uncover an extensive quantity of suggestions when individuals work alone (e.g., Diehl & Stroebe, 1987;; Mullen, Johnson, & Salas, 1991). Nevertheless, Paulus and Yang (2000) underscored the merits of brainstorming in group settings.

Presentation of a sample of ideas

As Kohn, Paulus, and Choi (2011) showed, if people are first exposed to a sample of ideas, perhaps generated by some other individual or group, brainstorming tends to be more effective. For example, in one study, pairs of students received a list of 40 ideas about a specific topic--how to improve their university. These ideas were either unusual or common. Their task was to identify as many ideas themselves. Consistent with the premise of brainstorming, they were told to refrain from judging their ideas but encouraged to combine different solutions together. The participants worked alone. However, in one condition, they were instructed to pass each solution to the other person, who would then decide whether this idea is more feasible now or in the future, simulating a group environment.

If participants had been exposed to unusual examples, their solutions were rated as more novel and feasible by independent judges. In contrast, if participants had been exposed to common examples, their solutions were judged to be higher in impact. This pattern, however, was observed only in the group environment.


To implement the key principles of brainstorming pragmatically, many approaches and techniques have been developed. In one approach, for example, participants sit in a circular arrangement. They transcribe an idea and pass the paper, in a clockwise direction, to the next person. Each person then appends some additional thoughts to the paper, and this process continues. Other approaches, such as lists of names, can be applied instead to vary the order in which each person receives the paper.

Alternatively, all the individuals in a team first identify some ideas-usually intended to solve a specific issue or problem. Then, a facilitator attempts to merge these ideas into a single, unified map. Shared insights seem to emerge, which they often evokes additional ideas, and so forth.


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Last Update: 6/29/2016