When Emotional Reappraisal Can Heighten Creativity

Researchers found that after practicing “emotional reappraisal.” conventional thinkers, those who rank low on openness to new ideas and experiences, came up with more creative ideas than their peers. Emotional reappraisal is when you look at a situation from a different emotional point of view. For example, you might try to see something that makes you angry as neutral or hopeful.

The finding suggests that creativity can be trained and is not limited to people we think of as creative types.

“Whenever we break away from our existing perspective and try to think about something that’s different from our initial reaction, there’s a creative element to it. If we can practice or train that flexible-thinking muscle, it may help us be more creative over time,”

said lead author Lily Zhu, an assistant professor in Washington State University’s Carson College of Business.

Openness To New Ideas

Zhu and coauthors Chris Bauman and Maia Young from the University of California, Irvine conducted a survey and two similar experiments with three different groups of people for the study. The first survey of 279 college students found that people who were more creative, with a high openness to new ideas, also practiced emotional reappraisal on a regular basis.

In a study of 335 people recruited through a crowdsourcing platform, participants were first ranked on their openness levels before being shown a film scene designed to elicit anger.

They were given different instructions while watching: suppress their emotions, think about something else to distract themselves, or try emotional appraisal — looking at the scene through a different lens. A portion also received no guidance on how to manage their emotions.

After watching the film, the participants were asked to come up with an idea for how to use a space in their building that was being vacated by a cafeteria that was closing down. A panel of experts who knew nothing about the participants then evaluated those ideas.

Ideas like “napping pods” or opening a childcare facility were deemed highly creative, whereas opening a similar cafeteria or a food franchise was deemed low in creativity.

Emotional Reappraisal Effects

Rather than watching a film, the next experiment had a different group of 177 participants write about an experience that made them angry. They were then given the option of writing about it again from a different emotional standpoint or writing about something else as a distraction.

In both studies, participants who tried emotional reappraisal produced more original ideas than those who suppressed their emotions, avoided them, or used no emotional regulation techniques at all.

Notably, for participants who were already considered creative thinkers, emotional reappraisal had little effect on their creativity. The authors argue that because creative people already practice emotional reappraisal on a regular basis, doing more of it has less of an impact, similar to adding more gas to a car that already has fuel.

Business Creativity Training

Researchers say that the results could help businesses be more productive because it seems possible to use the knowledge and experience of more employees by encouraging their creativity. This is true even for people who work in traditional jobs like accounting, insurance adjusting, or data analytics.

Zhu suggests that managers create training programs to help employees develop creative thinking skills. People can also practice emotional reappraisal instead of trying to hide their negative feelings when faced with a problem or crisis.

“Negative emotions are inevitable in the workplace. The question is not do we want negative emotions, or not? The question is: how can we better deal with them in a productive, healthy way? Part of the implications of this study is that we can use negative emotions in our everyday life as opportunities to practice flexible thinking,”

Zhu said.

Reference: Lily Yuxuan Zhu, Christopher W. Bauman, Maia J Young. Unlocking creative potential: Reappraising emotional events facilitates creativity for conventional thinkers. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Volume 174, 2023, 104209, ISSN 0749-5978