#11 from R&D Innovator Volume 1, Number 4          November 1992 

The Value(?) of Art in the Laboratory
by Robert W. Weisberg, Ph.D. 

Dr. Weisberg is a professor of psychology at Temple University and author of Creativity:  Genius and Other Myths  and Creativity:  Beyond the Myth of Genius (W.H. Freeman and Co., New York, 1986 and 1992). 

Recently, I read an article about corporations that have begun exposing their employees to art and to artists.  These art programs are supposed to "unleash latent creativity so that employees can find fresh solutions to old problems."  Such exposure presumably provides the employees with information about the creative process they can use in their work.  

Cognitive psychologists examine similar issues under the rubric of "transfer of knowledge."   In laboratory studies of transfer, we test whether the new information has transferred to the target by exposing experimental subjects to critical information and then asking them to solve a target problem.  If transfer takes place, the subjects can solve the target problem better than unexposed controls. 

Since the goal of art-exposure programs is to give employees information they can use in their work, I look upon them as attempts at transfer.  Unfortunately, laboratory studies of transfer and case studies of significant creative works both indicate that, however much the art may enrich the employees' lives, it will have little impact on job creativity.  

Psychological investigators of transfer distinguish "surface" and "underlying" similarities between critical information and the target problem.  If there is surface similarity, the presentation of the target problem "reminds" the subject of the critical material.  If there is underlying similarity, the principle used in the critical material helps solve the target problem.  

Examples for a Transfer Study  (Based on work by K.J. Holyoak) 

Consider these three problems.  

The Radiation Problem 

Problem: A doctor has a patient with a malignant tumor that will be fatal unless it is destroyed.  The only ray that could destroy the tumor must be used at such a high intensity that it would kill any healthy tissue it penetrates.   Lower intensities are harmless to healthy tissue but do not damage the tumor.  How can we destroy the tumor while preserving the healthy tissue? 

Solution:  Aim two weak rays at the tumor from different angles. 

The General Problem 

Problem: A general was trying to overrun a fortress that was situated at the center of a country, with roads leading to it from several directions.  His army was too weak to fight divided, but he could not march the entire army down any single road because they all had land mines set to explode if a large group passed over them. 

Solution: Divide the army into groups and order them to converge on the fortress from several directions. 

The Light Bulb Problem 

Problem: A lab used a very expensive light bulb to emit precise amounts of light.  One morning Ruth, who operated the bulb, found that it had been burning all night and its filament had broken in two.  Ruth knew the filament could be fused with a brief, intense laser beam.  She also knew the beam would be intense enough to shatter the glass bulb, which could not be opened.  A lower intensity beam would not break the glass, but it would not fuse the filament either.   How could she use the laser to repair the filament without breaking the bulb? 

Solution:  Focus two weaker lasers at the filament.

An underlying similarity exists in all three situations:  The force must be divided and then recombined at the target.  A surface similarity exists between the Radiation problem and the Light Bulb problem:  Rays and lasers are both forms of radiation.  But no surface similarity exists between these two problems and the General.  In that problem, the force that must be divided and recombined is an army, not radiation.  Thus, although all three problems can be solved by a similar principle, they differ in the embodiment of that principle. 

If we order the Light Bulb and the General in terms of similarity to the Radiation problem, the Light Bulb represents "near" transfer, because it has both surface and underlying similarities to the target problem.  The General is more "remote" because it has only underlying similarity. 

Experiments show us that critical material transfers to a target problem only if both surface and underlying similarities are present.  To put it another way, subjects exposed to the Light Bulb problem solve the Radiation problem more frequently than naive controls.  But exposure to the General story does not help subjects solve the Light Bulb problem (unless we tell them that the General is relevant).  Furthermore, even if we hint that the critical material is relevant to the target, surface similarities still help determine how readily the subject applies critical material to the target.  

Back to Creative Thinking 

Case studies of creative thinking in many realms show that even the most creative thinkers can only exploit "near" transfer. 

1)   The Wright brothers developed the "wing-warping" control system for their first powered airplane after observing that birds control their orientation by adjusting their wing tips.  The surface similarity between bird wings and plane wings is quite apparent.   

2)  After Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, he needed a means to deliver electricity to homes.  He based his distribution network on the existing system used to deliver natural illuminating gas to residences.  Residential electric lighting was thus designed to resemble an existing residential lighting system. 

3)  James Watson and Francis Crick used Linus Pauling's work on the helical structure of protein as one source for their development of the double-helix model of DNA.  Both situations involve large, biologically important molecules composed of repeating units. 

4)  Charles Darwin's knowledge of how farmers breed animals with "artificial selection" contributed to his theory of natural selection.  Both processes concerned changes in animal species over time. 

Artistic Flop? 

If we return to corporate art-exposure programs, the reasons for my pessimism become clear.  In the terms we have been using, the apparent hope is that exposure to an artist and/or art will facilitate creativity in a domain that is remote from art.   Yet it is highly unlikely that any general principles extracted from artwork could be spontaneously transferred to work in the laboratory.  Furthermore, even if employees are told of the expected effects of the art-exposure program, any information gleaned from an artist is likely to be too general to offer much practical help. 

The article that stimulated my interest in corporate art-exposure programs quoted an executive who hoped that seeing artists "trying new things" would help corporate workers solve problems.  But the dictum to "try something new" can scarcely help someone who faces a specific problem.  The article also mentioned a company that used a string quartet to show the importance of creative teamwork.  Again, I suspect the message was too general.

I can imagine cases in which an art-exposure program might work.  For example, a manufacturer of plumbing fixtures that invites sculptors to work in its foundries allows its designers to observe the sculptors at work.   In this case, the similarity between the two endeavors should stimulate transfer, which could be useful to the company. 

In conclusion, it seems there may be little that researchers can learn from art, because transfers that could be valuable to a research program occur most readily when the critical material and the target have both surface and underlying similarities.  It would be interesting to learn about the actual value of these art-exposure programs after several years' experience, but unfortunately, corporations do not carry out controlled experiments of their effectiveness.

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