#11 from R&D Innovator Volume 1, Number 4 November 1992
Value(?) of Art in the Laboratory
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).
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.
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.
the goal of art-exposure programs is to give employees information
they can use in their work, I look upon them as attempts at
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
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.
for a Transfer Study (Based
on work by K.J. Holyoak)
these three problems.
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.
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.
Divide the army into groups and order them to converge on the
fortress from several directions.
Light Bulb 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.
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.
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
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
exposure to the General story does not help subjects solve the
Light Bulb problem (unless we tell them that the General is
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.
to Creative Thinking
studies of creative thinking in many realms show that even the
most creative thinkers can only exploit "near" transfer.
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
After Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, he needed a
means to deliver electricity to homes.
He based his
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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