Enhancing Creative Thinking with a Bit of the Bubbly

Wiley and Jarosz sharing some bubbly.

Jennifer Wiley and Andrew Jarosz. Photo by Roberta Dupuis-Devlin

A moderate level of alcohol intoxication can enhance the ability to creatively problem-solve according to a study conducted by Jennifer Wiley, professor and chair of the cognitive PhD program in the Department of Psychology. The study “Uncorking the Muse: Alcohol intoxication facilitates creative problem solving”—done with two of her graduate students, Andrew Jarosz and Gregory Colflesh—was published in the March 2012 issue of Consciousness and Cognition. Not surprisingly, the study results garnered significant attention from popular media.

“People generally assume that when we are trying to solve problems complete focus is required,” said Wiley. “In reality, too much focus can hinder our access to creative thinking.”

Jarosz, a PhD candidate in psychology and current researcher in Wiley’s lab, was the first author-investigator on the project. He and Colflesh (PhD psychology 2009) gathered 40 male social drinkers for the experiment. Twenty of the men drank a controlled amount of alcohol and ate a snack while viewing the animated film Ratatouille. The other 20 men only watched the film. About an hour into the study, the alcohol drinkers took a breathalyzer test showing average levels of about .075 breath alcohol content, slightly under the legal drinking limit. Then all 40 study subjects engaged in a problem-solving exercise.

The participants were presented with 15 sets of three words and asked to provide a fourth word that would form a two-word phrase with each of the words in the trio. The words “blue,” “cake” and “cottage” formed one trio and the intended answer would be “cheese,” completing the phrases “blue cheese,” “cheese cake” and “cottage cheese.” Another example word trio is “eight, “skate” and “stick.”

Different tasks and situations are best served by varying states of consciousness and cognition.
                  -- Jennifer Wiley 

The drinking group averaged nine solved word trios and took an average of 11.5 seconds to produce a correct answer while the sober subjects registered averages of six solved word trios and 15.2 seconds for delivery of their accurate responses.“It has long been suggested that creativity and creative problem solving can benefit from a more diffuse attentional state,” said Jarosz. “This study is a first step in empirically demonstrating alcohol’s effect on cognition and the situations in which a moderate level of intoxication might be of benefit.”

“It is also important to note that at the same time as improving creative problem solving, intoxication led to a seven to 10 percent decrease in working memory capacity among the drinking participants, which is why we believe that the alcohol is affecting the ability to focus attention,” said Wiley.

Wiley has been conducting cognitive research in the areas of creative and collaborative problem solving for the past 16 years. Recent papers with her students include: the chapter “How Working Memory Capacity Affects Problem Solving” in Volume 56 of The Psychology of Learning and Motivation, co-authored by Jarosz; “Firing the Executive: When an Analytic Approach to Problem Solving Helps and Hurts,” a study conducted in collaboration with Jarosz, undergraduate Daniel A. Aiello and recent PhD Patrick J. Cushen, published in the Journal of Problem Solving; and, also with Dr. Cushen, “Aha!, Voila!, Eureka! Bilingualism and insightful problem solving,” a study that looked at the effect of subjects’ monolingualism or bilingualism on problem-solving tasks, and which was published in Learning and Individual Differences.

Jarosz has begun research on his dissertation, focusing on how individual differences in attentional control affect performance on intelligence tests. He is also continuing to explore how different substances such as alcohol may affect both attentional control and performance on a wider range of cognitive tasks. After receiving his doctorate, he hopes to pursue postdoctoral training and a career as a professor of psychology.

Jennifer Wiley

Jennifer Wiley. Photo by Roberta Dupuis-Devlin

“The common theme behind much of the work in the lab is what helps people generate creative solutions,” said Wiley. “You can’t be analytical and focused all the time and you can’t be creative all the time either—you’d get nowhere. Different tasks and situations are best served by varying states of consciousness and cognition and the fun work is determining how people can move between the different states to achieve their best results. Collaboration is another important factor that might lead to innovation, but there is much more that needs to be learned about how and when that works.”

Wiley has several additional lines of research concerned with how to support better learning in the classroom. Her collaborations with Tom Moher, a UIC associate professor in computer science, have focused on how classroom-based simulations can support middle-school learning in science. This research has been funded by the National Science Foundation. Her collaborations with Thomas D. Griffin, a UIC research assistant professor in psychology, have focused on improving learning from text in science and history, both by improving metacomprehension skills (the ability to understand when you have understood a text) as well as by improving the ability to learn from multiple sources on a topic. These projects have been funded by the Institute of Educational Sciences.