How Creative Idea Generation is Influenced by Individual Preferences

How Creative Idea Generation is Influenced by Individual Preferences

We shape our thoughts more quickly the more we like them. But we must prioritize unconventional thinking if we are to be innovative. Researchers from Inserm at the Paris Brain Institute Alizée Lopez-Persem and Emmanuelle Volle demonstrated this in a recent study.

Through the use of a computational model to reproduce the many elements of the creative process plus a behavioural study, the researchers elucidate how individual preferences impact the rate at which new ideas originate and the level of creativity they possess. These preferences likewise influence our choices on which ideas to use and share with others.

Creativity is built on complicated principles that we are only now beginning to comprehend, and motivation plays a key part. However, pursuing a goal is insufficient to explain why we prefer some concepts over others and whether that preference helps the success of our actions.

Adapting to Change

What pushes us to innovate rather than rely on tried-and-true methods and processes? What drives the desire to innovate at the risk of wasting time, energy, and reputation in the event of a resounding failure?

“Creativity can be defined as the ability to produce original and relevant ideas in a given context, to solve a problem or improve a situation. It is a key skill for adapting to change or provoking it,”

explained Lopez-Persem, a researcher in cognitive neuroscience. Her team is interested in the cognitive mechanisms that allow for the production of creative ideas, with the goal of learning how to employ them effectively.

Creative Process Phases

Researchers now believe that the creative process consists of two stages: creating new ideas and assessing their potential. They have yet to grasp how this review is done and what causes us to retain some ideas over others.

“We need to value our ideas to select the best ones. However, there is no indication that this operation corresponds to a rational and objective evaluation in which we try to inhibit our cognitive biases from making the best possible choice. We, therefore, wanted to know how this value is assigned and whether it depends on individual characteristics,”

said Lopez-Persem.

Modeling the creative process as a series of operations involving distinct brain networks does not correspond with the common conception of creativity, which is typically portrayed as a force that seizes, transports, and surpasses us.

Exploration, Evaluation, and Selection

In contrast, Volle’s team believes that creativity has three fundamental dimensions that can be modelled using mathematical tools: exploration, which is based on personal knowledge and allows us to imagine possible options; evaluation, which involves judging the quality of an idea; and selection, which enables us to choose the concept that will be verbalized.

To better understand the reciprocal relationships between these three dimensions, the researchers recreated them in a computational model, which they then compared to the actual behaviour of study participants.

71 participants were invited to take free association tests through the Paris Brain Institute’s PRISME platform, which consists of pairing words in the most adventurous way possible. They were then asked to rate how much they enjoyed these idea associations and whether they were relevant and original.

“Our results indicate that the subjective evaluation of ideas plays an important role in creativity,”

said neurologist Emmanuelle Volle.

“We observed a relationship between the speed of production of new ideas and participants’ level of appreciation of these ideas. In other words, the more you like the idea you are about to formulate, the faster you come up with it. Imagine, for example, a cook who intends to make a sauce: the more the combination of flavors seduces him in his mind, the faster he will throw himself on the ingredients. Our other discovery is that this assessment combines two subjective criteria: originality and relevance,”

Volle added.

Originality vs Relevance

The team demonstrates that the significance of these two criteria varies depending on the individual.

“It all depends on their experience, personality, and probably their environment, adds the researcher. Some favor the originality of an idea over its relevance; for others, it’s the other way around,”

Volle said.

However, whether you prefer originality or relevance plays a role in creative thinking: we found that people who prefer original ideas suggest more inventive ideas.

Finally, based on their preferences as measured in an independent task, the team’s model predicted the speed and quality of participants’ creative proposals. These findings emphasize the mechanical aspect of the creative drive.

Neural Substrate Correlations

They also point to the long-term possibility of precisely describing the mechanisms of creativity at the neurocomputational level and correlating them to their neural substrate, challenging the stereotype that creative thinking is a mysterious process over which we have no control.

“In the future, we want to define different creativity profiles related to people’s fields of activity. Do you have different creative preferences if you are an architect, software engineer, illustrator, or technician? Which environments foster creativity, and which ones inhibit it? Could we modify or re-educate our creative profile through cognitive exercises to match personal ambitions or needs? All these questions remain open, but we firmly intend to answer them,”

said Lopez-Persem.


What drives us to search for creative ideas, and why does it feel good to find one? While previous studies demonstrated the positive influence of motivation on creative abilities, how reward and subjective values play a role in creativity remains unknown. This study proposes to characterize the role of individual preferences (how people value ideas) in creative ideation via behavioral experiments and computational modeling. Using the Free Generation of Associates Task coupled with rating tasks, we demonstrate the involvement of valuation processes during idea generation: Preferred ideas are provided faster. We found that valuation depends on the adequacy and originality of ideas and guides response selection and creativity. Finally, our computational model correctly predicts the speed and quality of human creative responses, as well as interindividual differences in creative abilities. Altogether, this model introduces the mechanistic role of valuation in creativity. It paves the way for a neurocomputational account of creativity mechanisms.

  1. Lopez-Persem, A., Moreno-Rodriguez, S., Ovando-Tellez, M., Bieth, T., Guiet, S., Brochard, J., & Volle, E. (2023). How subjective idea valuation energizes and guides creative idea generation. American Psychologist. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/amp0001165

Top image credit: Night with her Train of Stars, 1912, E.R.Hughes. Courtesy Birmingham Museums Trust