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Drinking alcohol may boost creativity, psychologist finds

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Jennifer Wiley

Right: two puzzles similar to the ones used in measure creative thinking in psychologist Jennifer Wiley's research.


Can alcoholic beverages actually help the imbiber solve problems and be more creative?

According to a new study from UIC researchers, drinking alcohol may provide a beneficial boost to creative problem-solving abilities.

The findings, published by the online journal Consciousness and Cognition, indicate participants who were slightly under the .08 legal drinking limit outperformed their sober counterparts in solving more word association problems and finding solutions faster.

Principal investigator and senior author Jennifer Wiley, associate professor of psychology, is not recommending you file your taxes under the influence. But she suggests that diffusing attention may not be a bad thing.

“If you get a little tipsy, people are significantly better at finding weird, remote answers,” Wiley says.

“There is a common belief, when we are trying to think or solve problems, that it really helps us to focus on things. Well, sometimes too much focus might hurt us.”

Wiley and the study’s co-authors, graduate students Andrew Jarosz and Gregory Colflesh, gathered two groups of 20 male social drinkers. One set watched an animated movie while drinking and eating a snack; the other watched the movie without drinks or food.


“There is a common belief, when we are trying to think or solve problems, that it really helps us to focus on things. Well, sometimes too much focus might hurt us.”


A problem-solving exercise followed, with 15 word association tasks featuring groupings of three words. For every set, participants had to produce a fourth word that forms a phrase with each of words found in the trio.

The drinking group averaged nine solved tasks and took an average of 11.5 seconds to produce a correct answer. In comparison, the sober subjects registered averages of six solved tasks and 15.2 seconds for delivery of their accurate responses.

The drinking study ties into a common theme among the projects emanating from Wiley’s lab: what helps people generate creative solutions.

Another study found that early bilinguals, or people who have been speaking two languages all their lives, are much more flexible and able to solve creative problems.

Wiley says the participants’ experience of switching between two languages may have been a factor in their success.

“When, for all of your life, you have been balancing multiple languages, you might have more flexible cognitive functions than some of us who have only been speaking one language,” she explains.

Other studies by Wiley have shown that participants told to simply “use your gut” can solve creative problems better.

“You can’t be analytical all the time. You can’t be focused all the time. You can’t be creative all the time, either. You’d get nowhere,” she says.

“The fun thing is figuring out how we can move people back and forth between these two, and what conditions help people when they are solving different kinds of creative problems.”

Another significant area of work conducted in Wiley’s lab is related to collaboration — how it may lead to innovation and more effective problem solving.

She aims to solve the enigma of putting people with diverse expertise together so they get the most benefit from the interaction.

According to Wiley, a difficult task of group interaction is often getting members to share their differences, rather than talking about things they have in common.

“Where innovation comes from is talking to other people and getting them to actually say the unique information they have,” she says. s“The whole point when you come together as a group is that you should each be contributing something.

“Studying problem solving is fun. Innovation is really important. It’s a big unanswered question of what helps people be creative.”

bflood@uic.edu

Below: “If you get a little tipsy, people are significantly better at finding weird, remote answers,” says Jennifer Wiley, associate professor of psychology.

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