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Creativity, Emotion

'Reappraisal' strategy for regulating emotions can also boost creativity

Participants who were not naturally creative thinkers showed an increase in creativity after using cognitive reappraisal to regulate their emotions.

19 April 2023

By Emily Reynolds

Our ability to regulate our emotions by reframing the meaning of emotional events is an important skill. We may need to 'psych ourselves up' when feeling unconfident or make ourselves feel calmer when we're under stress, for example, both by reinterpreting situations or thinking about them in more positive ways.

Reappraising emotional events requires us to think creatively — so the researchers behind a new study in Organizational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes wondered whether it could also boost our creativity more generally. Lily Yuxuan Zhu from Washington State University and colleagues find that using cognitive reappraisal can indeed lead to greater creativity — especially amongst those who are not particularly creative thinkers.

The first study looked at whether people who use emotional reappraisal strategies for emotion regulation tend to be more creative. Participants first completed a six-item scale assessing their tendency to use reappraisal, indicating how much they agreed with statements such as "I control my emotions by changing the way I think about the situation I'm in". They also completed a scale measuring a different form of emotion regulation, suppression (e.g. "I control my emotions by not expressing them"). Next, participants rated how creatively they generally behaved, indicating how excited they become by their own ideas, for instance, or how often they feel they can improve or reinvent things.

The results showed that the more people reappraised situations as a form of emotional regulation, the more creative they generally were. However, there was no link between using a suppression strategy and creativity.

The second study looked at whether using emotional reappraisal could actually make people more creative. Participants first completed a personality test to measure their levels of openness; people low in openness tend to be less curious and creative. One week later, they completed two tasks, which they believed were unrelated to this personality test. In the first of these, participants watched a film clip designed to induce anger while regulating their emotions. They were assigned to one of four conditions: in the reappraisal condition, participants were asked to reinterpret the scene in a way that would help them experience the situation differently; in the distraction condition they were asked to think about something unrelated to the film content; in the suppression condition, participants tried to inhibit their own facial expressions; and in the no regulation condition received no instructions. They then described what they thought about while watching the film.

Participants then took part in a creativity task, in which they imagined that their office cafe had gone bankrupt and were asked to come up with creative ideas for a new business to fill the empty space. They had unlimited time for this task. The team then ranked the ideas on how creative they were, and also noted how many different ideas participants had generated.

The results showed that people with low levels of openness who had used the reappraisal strategy were more creative in the subsequent task, and generated more ideas, than those who had used the other strategies. For people high in openness, there was no effect. This suggests that using reappraisal strategies can enhance creativity specifically among those who are less disposed to be creative in the first place.

In the final study, the researchers manipulated participants' openness to further examine the role of this trait in reappraisal and creativity. To inhibit participants' openness, one group was asked to write about a conversation that confirmed their existing beliefs, a time they tried a new food and didn't like it, and a time they returned to a familiar place. To accentuate their openness, another group wrote about three experiences that highlighted the benefit of new experiences: an intellectual conversation that challenged their views, a time they enjoyed a new food, and a time they visited a new place they wanted to visit.

They were then all asked to recall an event that had made them feel angry and vividly describe it. Half of each group were asked to reappraise their anger by thinking about it from a different perspective, while half were told to do something distracting: write about what they could see from the window closest to them. They then completed the same creativity task from the second study and measured their emotional state.

The results again showed that the effect of reappraisal on creativity depended on openness. When participants were low in openness, they were more creative after using appraisal — but when they were high in openness, their creativity wasn't affected by the emotional regulation strategies they used. This again suggests that reappraisal encourages you to think creatively, compensating for the lack of creativity linked with low openness.

The study suggests that creativity and the ability to think in flexible, interesting ways is not solely trait based, but can change and shift quite easily. Methods such as reappraisal could therefore provide a way to improve our creativity, at work and in other environments.