Behavioural Economist and Financial Times columnist Tim Harford gave us a fascinating presentation on why frustration makes us creative, and why we should sometimes embrace the messiness around us at this year’s #mtpcon.
Harford began with the story of a 1975 performance by jazz pianist Keith Jarrett at the Cologne Opera House when, as the result of a mix-up by the opera house, Jarrett ended up playing a late-night concert on a piano that was unplayable in the higher registers.
Jarrett’s instinctive reaction was not to play, says Harford. But the recording of this concert – which was made to give Jarrett and his manager “documentary proof of a musical catastrophe”- is Jarrett’s Köln Concert album – the best-selling solo album in jazz history, and the all-time best-selling piano album. Jarrett was handed a mess and found another way to get the most of the piano and produced what many now consider a masterpiece.
Harford cited research by psychologist Daniel Oppenheimer to show that you bring out the best in people when you make a task very slightly more difficult. Oppenheimer and his research team partnered with high school teachers. The teachers gave some of their classes standard hand-outs formatted with an easy-to-read font, while other classes were given the same hand-outs in less legible fonts. At exam time it was found that the children who were given handouts in the trickier fonts performed better. Why? Because, said Harford, the font made the children read more slowly, it meant that they felt they had a challenge that they needed to rise to, and they had to pick up clues and make connections that they otherwise wouldn’t have needed to make. In short, they learned more from the font that was harder to read.
Harford also cited Harvard psychologist Shelly Carson who tested her students for their attention filters. Carson found a lot her students had weak attention filters – they let in a lot of noise and information, when they tried to focus on a specific task. These students with the weak filters were also creative high achievers of her group.
Harford also backed up his assertion that frustration makes us creative with an example from computer science. If you take a classic complex problem that even a computer finds hard to solve, such as the layout of circuits on a chip, you can’t find the perfect way to pack the circuits on the chip because the range of possible outcomes is so huge.
One method is to design an algorithm that searches for solutions step by step. But throw in a bit of randomness, and you get a better result, he says. Most such algorithms throw in some randomness early on in the design process because a step by step search for marginal improvements in the layout of components eventually just gets stuck.
Harford went on to describe some research by Kath Phillips at Northwestern University, illustrating how diversity in teams can lead to better decisions.
Phillips gave people a multiple choice murder mystery problem, where everyone came to the problem with the same information. Firstly they were asked to solve the mystery by themselves – and fewer than 50% of people were able to get the right answer. When they were put together in teams this rose only slightly – with a team of four friends the success rate went up to just over 50%.
However, when Phillips put three friends together in a team with a stranger the success rate rocketed to 75%. While this shouldn’t happen since no one has any new information, the success rate went up just through, as Harford says, “the sheer awkwardness of coping with the gooseberry in the room”. He added: “Because you don’t know someone, you can’t let lazy assumptions slide and you’re more cautious in how you phrase things. It turns out that all of this is really important.”
Moreover, Phillips also questioned the teams afterwards on what they thought of the experience. The teams of four friends thought it had been a huge success, while the teams of three friends and a stranger said they hadn’t enjoyed themselves, they couldn’t communicate, and they couldn’t solve the problem – even though they were actually more successful.
This research exemplifies the problem we have, says Harford – the people who were feeling comfortable with their friends and thought they solving the problem were failing, while those working with a stranger were unable to acknowledge it had helped. According to Harford: “We often have to be forced into this stuff, we don’t embrace it.”
Rock ‘n’ Roll
In closing, Harford also talked about the strategies Brian Eno has used to get musicians to stretch themselves creatively. When Eno famously collaborated with David Bowie in the 1970s to produce a series of what are now considered to be seminal albums he would pull out a card from a deck he called “the oblique strategies” whenever someone got stuck. The card would say things like “Work at a different speed”, “Use unqualified people”. The musicians hated them, but the results speak for themselves. According to Eno, the cards were originally pinned as a list on the studio wall, but musicians always picked the least frightening and least disruptive choice. They had to be drawn at random and forced on people in order for them to work.
And all of us need to play the unplayable piano every now and again, according to Harford: it helps us to be more creative, to solve problems and to do better work.