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Dual pathway to creative performance

Author: Dr Simon Moss


Many studies have shown that individuals are more likely to perform creatively if their mood is positive rather than negative (e.g., Grawitch, Munz, & Kramer, 2003;; Hirt, Levine, McDonald, Melton, & Martin, 1997 & Hirt, Melton, McDonald, & Harackiewicz, 1996). Nevertheless, in some contexts, mood does not affect creativity (e.g., Bartolic, Basso, Schefft, Glauser, & Titanic Schefft, 1999). Indeed, negative moods can even enhance some forms of creativity (e.g., Carlsson, 2002;; Gasper, 2003;; Madjar & Oldham, 2002).

The dual pathway model to creative performance was proposed, and substantiated, by De Dreu, Baas, and Nijstad (2008), to reconcile these findings. In essence, according to this model, positive emotions facilitate flexible thinking. Second, negative emotions promote persistence. Third, emotions that reflect an active, not passive, state--such as anger or excitement rather than sadness or relaxation--magnify these effects of positive and negative emotions.

Evolution of the dual pathway model to creative performance

The dual pathway model primarily evolved from integrating the cognitive tuning model with the finding that activation enhances the operation of working memory.

Cognitive tuning model and related explanations

A variety of theories assume that positive moods tend to facilitate flexible thinking whereas negative moods tend to promote persistence and determination. The cognitive tuning model, promulgated by Schwarz and Bless (1991) as well as Clore, Schwarz, and Conway (1994), epitomizes one of these theories.

According to this model, when individuals experience negative affective states, they perceive the immediate context as threatening or problematic. To identify, minimize, and redress the source of this problem, individuals must focus their attention on specific details--features in the environment that could provoke difficulties. Because attention is directed towards only key information, individuals reflect upon specific and concrete details rather than broad and intangible concepts (Mikulincer, Paz, & Kedem, 1990). Furthermore, because of this focus on specific concepts, individuals remain oblivious to many other cues and features in the environment. They will, therefore, become less likely to shift their attention to other concepts and stimuli (Derryberry & Reed, 1998). They persist with a single set of features (Gray & Braver, 2002) rather than demonstrate flexibility and distractibility.

In contrast, when individuals experience positive affective states, they perceive the immediate context as safe rather than threatening. They will, therefore, not restrict their attention to specific details, but will switch more frequently, demonstrating flexibility rather than persistence. Accordingly, they will often contemplate, explore, and uncover novel possibilities. In short, negative moods should foster persistence and positive moods should foster flexibility--in which individuals consider and integrate a diverse range of concepts (George & Zhou, 2007).

Activation and working memory

Emotions do not only vary on the extent to which they are positive or negative, called hedonic tone. Emotions also vary on whether they reflect an active or passive state, referred to as activation or arousal (Barrett & Russell, 1998;; Posner, Russell, & Peterson, 2005).

Activation has been shown to enhance working memory (Ashby, Valentin, & Turken, 2002)--the capacity of individuals to retain, transform, and integrate information in their mind. Working memory underpins the processes that individuals undertake when they engage in creative tasks. Hence, according to the dual pathway model to creative performance, working memory capacity should facilitate the flexibility that corresponds to positive moods. Furthermore, working memory capacity should augment the effects of persistence that characterizes negative moods.

As a consequence, individuals should manifest greater flexibility in their thinking when their positive moods are active rather than passive. Excitement and happiness, for example, should promote flexibility more than should relaxation. Likewise, the benefits of persistance on the creative performance of individuals should increase when their negative moods are active rather than passive. Persistence should translate more to creative performance when individuals feel anger or anxious rather than sad.


Dreu, Baas, and Nijstad (2008) collected evidence that supports their model. They conducted several studies in which the emotions of participants were either manipulated--usually by asking individuals to write about an occasion that provoked specific feelings--or measured. To assess creative performance, participants suggested strategies to improve the quality of teaching at the university. The number of suggestions, called fluency, the extent to which suggestions departed from conventional answers, called originality, and the degree to which the suggestions related to different categories, called flexibility, were all assessed. Furthermore, the time that individuals dedicated to this task was monitored.

In general, activating emotions, such as anger, were more likely to increase fluency and originality than other emotions, such as sadness. Furthermore, participants were more persistent, dedicating more time to the task, when their mood was negative rather than positive.

In another study, participants were instructed to identify objects from pictures that were degraded. In this study, persistence was likely to enhance performance, but only when participants experienced negative moods. This finding is consistent with the proposition that positive moods enhance performance not through persistence but through flexibility.

Related concepts and findingfs

Ritter, Damian, Simonton, van Baaren, Strick, Derks, and Dijksterhuis (2012) developed and validated a theory that aligns to the dual pathway model to creative performance, but clarifies the determinants of flexibility and persistence. In particular, according to these researchers, individuals are more likely to exhibit cognitive flexibility and creativity when exposed to events that counter their expectations or schemas--but only if they actively participate, rather than merely observe, these experiences.

To illustrate, in one study, some participants were instructed to prepare a sandwich with one piece of bread, covered with butter and chocolate chips. In particular, they were instructed first to butter the bread and then scatter the chocolate chips on top. Other participants prepared the sandwich, but completed these procedures in the opposite order, deviating from the prevailing method. Specifically, they were instructed first to pour the chocolate chips onto the dish, butter a piece of bread, and then press the bread onto the chocolate chips. Finally, other participants merely observed someone else prepare this sandwich, applying one of these two approaches.

Next, all participants completed a measure of cognitive flexibility and creativity. Specifically, they needed to answer the questions "What makes sound?" and "What are all the possible uses of a brick?" as creatively as possible. After preparing a sandwich in the opposite order instead of the standard order, participants were more likely to uncover a more extensive range of solutions. In contrast, merely watching this preparation did not affect cognitive flexibility.

In another study, some participants interacted in a virtual environment that resembled a cafe. Half of these participants observed a few events that breach the laws of physics. For example, as they approached a suitcase, the object actually became smaller rather than larger. Likewise, when a toy car collided with a bottle, the bottle did not fall but somehow floated in the air. Other participants observed these events, except the laws of physics were not violated. Finally, some participants watched these events in a film& these participants, therefore, did not interact as actively in this environment. Exposure to events that breach the laws of physics enhanced cognitive flexibility, but only if participants interacted actively in this environment.

Therefore, unusual experiences seem to evoke creative processes. However, to enhance creativity, participants must be actively involved in these experiences& otherwise, they might not experience the level of arousal that is needed to elicit these processes.

The physical work environment

The physical environment also affects the creativity of people. Whether or not the mood states of individuals mediate this relationship between the physical environment and creativity, however, had not been ascertained definitively.

Dul, Ceylan, and Jaspers (2012) showed the physical environment affects creativity even after controlling creative personality and social or organizational practices. Specifically, 274 knowledge workers completed a survey. This survey assessed the extent to which these individuals exhibit the traits that epitomize a creative personality. In addition, this survey gauged the degree to which the policies and practices of their workplace align with the provisions that have been shown to enhance creativity, such as challenging jobs, autonomy, teamwork, task rotations, sufficient time to think, and adequate incentives to be creative. Furthermore, the survey gauged whether the physical environment corresponds to the features that have been demonstrated to enhance creativity, such as indoor plants, calming or inspiring colors, privacy, views of nature, daylight, and positive sounds or smells. Finally, participants indicated the extent to which they feel they propose creative solutions.

The results showed that a suitable physical environment was positively associated with creativity, according to self-reports. This association was observed even after age, gender, creative personality and relevant workplace practices were controlled.


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Last Update: 5/21/2016