The research of two UTA professors may impact how organizations are structured to influence creativity.

Psychology associate professor Jared Kenworthy and psychology professor Paul Paulus will soon study how creativity works in human networks, or social groups of individuals.

Kenworthy said the study is relevant because of the current need for collaborative solutions. He said society today can’t rely on one individual to come up with answers for the issues it faces — it will need to rely on group work.

“We’re at a period in human history where we’re going to be confronting some really big problems,” he said. “Water shortages, crowding, transportation, energy — all these things are going to hit crunch time pretty soon.”

The two will join Ali Minai, a University of Cincinnati engineering professor, and other researchers with a nearly $1 million INSPIRE grant, an Integrated National Science Foundation Support Promoting Interdisciplinary Research and Education grant, awarded to researchers who want to address complicated scientific problems.

Minai, who was awarded the grant, said the point of the research is to find out why some groups are more creative than others.

Other studies have shown human networks with diversity produce more creativity, which is something the researchers will look into, he said. He also said it’s possible that the structure of the network impacts creativity. This study will allow the researchers to make recommendations on how to structure an organization to produce the most creative team.

“It will help us both understand existing networks of human creativity and also to come up with prescriptions for future human networks and how to make people more creative,” he said.

Minai said he, Paulus and other researchers have been studying creativity together since 2007. He said they’ve noticed how groups can work better than individuals by looking at the success of companies such as Microsoft or Apple.

“The idea that creativity is a function of human networks is sort of already there,” Minai said.

Kenworthy and Paulus have also done research together in the past, Kenworthy said.

Previous research on creativity has mainly focused on individuals and no one else has really done research studying group creativity, Paulus said 

“It can really transform the field and come up with really exciting new findings,” he said.

Researchers in Cincinnati and New York will study existing human networks to see how they work together and extract information about group creativity from online and textual data. That information will then be sent to Kenworthy and Paulus to test in the laboratory with UTA students, who will be placed in electronic communities to see how they interact to come up with solutions. 

Previous studies of creativity have generally been in the lab with brainstorming groups, Minai said. However, observation in the lab is not a natural setting. Minai said the field work will aim to see people being creative in their natural habitat because different things happen in natural settings.

Leadership Center director Kerri Ressl said she sees group creativity at work when she gives problem solving exercises to students.

One example is an exercise with pictographs, pictures representing words or objects. One student will sit alone with several pictographs that he or she has to interpret. The student can figure out some of the pictographs such as “STA4NCE” meaning “for instance,” but can’t figure out the meanings for the others. He’ll then be placed in a group with other students who were given the same pictographs. As the students go through the puzzles together, they realize some of them were able to interpret the pictographs that the others in the group couldn’t. Eventually the students will be able to answer all the pictographs together.

The exercise shows that groups can bring talents together to solve problems, Ressl said.

“If we work together, amazing things can be done,” she said.

Kenworthy said he and Paulus are not just looking at the end product of the solution.

“What we’re interested in from the very beginning of these people starting their collaborations together are what are the kinds of things they do while they’re interacting,” he said. “It’s studying the whole creative process collaboratively from beginning to end.”

Paulus said previous studies suggest that groups might inhibit creativity because of in-group bias.

“People are resistant to accept or listen or process ideas that come from groups that are different from them,” he said. “On the other hand, if people don’t care who these people are, then they may be motivated to build on the ideas coming from other groups.”

Ressl said she thinks groups will encourage creativity. Groups can work faster than individuals because more people are working to achieve the same goal and each individual brings different skills to the group, she said.

“To accomplish your goal, everybody has to participate. Everybody has to bring something to the table,” she said. “Without that, you wouldn’t reach your goal.”

The project will take about a year to get started at UTA, Paulus said. The INSPIRE grant is a three-year grant, he said.

“I’m sure if it goes well and we discover really great stuff, it will continue on for longer than that,” Paulus said. “We will probably need more grants to build on what we’ve accomplished.”

Paulus said the project itself is a collaborative process.

“We have two psychologists, an engineer and two computer scientists all working together, pooling their talents to understand naturalistic creativity in networks,” he said.

Kenworthy said the study is exciting because the researchers will look at the creative process in a way that hasn’t been done before.

“It has the potential to revolutionize the way that people in real collaborative environments structure their activities to produce the best outcomes,” he said.


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