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Please Don’t Say ‘Don’t’

September 15, 2009
by Anne Pinckard
abstract painting

If you’ve ever participated in a brainstorming session, you were probably told that you shouldn’t criticize other people’s ideas. The longstanding belief is that civility creates an atmosphere that encourages the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that brainstorming is supposed to produce. However, a new study by Berkeley psychology professor Charlan Nemeth and graduate student Matthew Feinberg demonstrates it isn’t criticism that’s the problem, it’s telling the group what they can or cannot do—even if that’s telling them to be nice. In their study, brainstorming participants who were advised rather than instructed yielded more and better ideas.

In a prior study, Nemeth had concluded that encouraging or even mandating debate led to more productive sessions. Here, however, using suggestions rather than rules won out, regardless of whether the advice was to criticize or not. In an attempt to explain the conflicting results between the two studies, Nemeth speculates that in her first study participants reacted well to the requirement to criticize because it was breaking the rule they were used to.

People tend to associate rules with conformity, according to Nemeth and Feinberg, thus making people less willing to voice divergent ideas. And a mind constrained by rules may be too distracted to be creative. Finally, suggestions, rather than rules, might foster an atmosphere that supports free thinking.

So, the first rule of brainstorming: There are no rules.

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