Taking a break in a new context aids creative problem solving

Archimedes’ “Eureka!” moment occurred outside of a traditional work context.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Reference: Smith, S. M., & Beda, Z. (2020). Old problems in new contexts: The context-dependent fixation hypothesis. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 149(1), 192–197.

Guest post by Alexander Knopps

The world we currently live in has seen massive shifts in what we consider normal. I get to finish my undergraduate degree 2 feet away from where I sleep. As I finish the last exams I will ever take for my bachelor’s degree, I cannot help but think about the world returning to normal. I long for the days when I worked at my desk in my apartment, got stuck on how to phrase a survey question, became frustrated, and drove to a local cafe to clear my head. Almost always, as soon as I would sit down and sip on my coffee, I thought of a way to ask a complex question elegantly. I had to leave my work context to reach a creative solution. 

The phenomenon of shifting work contexts to achieve a solution to a complex, creative problem can be seen throughout history. For example, Archimedes experienced this phenomenon while attempting to find different ways to measure the volume of various objects. When he came to irregular objects (e.g., a king’s crown), he became “stuck” or mentally fixated. As legend explains, he was frustrated and went to take a bath to clear his mind. As soon as he laid down, the water rose and he yelled “Eureka!” He realized he could measure the volume of an object by the amount of water it displaced. This bath experience led to the establishment of the displacement principle. Just like my trip from my desk to a cafe, Archimedes achieved his moment of insight outside of a traditional work context. What is the science behind this phenomenon?

The Benefits of Taking a Break

When people experience mental fixation while attempting to solve creative problems, it helps for them to take a break – or incubation period. This break allows old, inappropriate, solutions to fade from the mind, and newer, better solutions to come to mind. Then, when people return to the problem, they are more likely to reach a solution compared to if they did not take a break.

Researchers Steven Smith and Zsolf Beda investigated whether new contexts which were not associated with mental fixation could also help with problem solving through a similar process.

Overview of experimental method used to investigate whether new contexts could benefit creative problem-solving performance. Adapted from Smith and Beda (2020; Figure 1).

Method

To test their idea, the researchers began by inducing mental fixation for a problem-solving task. To do this, they had participants study sets of three misleading words (e.g., fortune, fat, chart). These word sets were presented on top of a particular background context (e.g., a picture of a city street). To ensure that participants learned these words well, they were then tested on them.

Next, participants began the problem-solving phase of the experiment. They were presented with word problems that involved finding a remote associate for three cue words. For example, luck, belly, pie, had the solution pot. These word problems were presented on the same background context as the previously-studied misleading words. When attempting to solve the word problems, the previously studied words would come to mind which made it difficult for the participants to reach the solution.

After this initial problem-solving attempt, participants were given a second attempt to solve the problems either immediately or after a brief delay. In other words, some of the participants did not receive an incubation period, and some participants did receive one. In addition, the word problems were either presented on the same background as the misleading words (old context; e.g., a picture of a city street) or on a new background (new context; e.g., a picture of a desert). The researchers were interested in how the context would influence participants’ performance on the word problems — that is, the proportion of problems solved on the second attempt (that were not solved on the first attempt).

Results

So, did a change in context benefit creative problem-solving performance? Yes!

Replicating prior research on incubation effects, participants correctly solved more problems when solved at a delay than when solved immediately. Most importantly, for participants who received an incubation period, participants solved more problems in the new context compared to the old one.

Proportion of initially unsolved problems that were solved during the second problem-solving attempt. Participants solved more problems when they received an incubation period (right columns) compared to when they did not (left columns). And, for those who received an incubation period, participants solved more problems in a new context (purple bars) compared to an old context (blue bars). Adapted from Smith and Beda (2020; Figure 2).

Changing Context for Success

These results provide empirical support for the idea that taking a break, particularly one in a new context, can help people overcome mental fixation and reach creative solutions to problems.

Currently, many people are working outside of traditional work contexts as the global pandemic from COVID-19 rages on. Especially now, how many times have you started to work and hit a roadblock? No matter how hard you tried, no new ideas would come to mind. What can be done to overcome this mental block? You could take a walk, get up to get water, sharpen a pencil, or use the restroom. Perhaps even a mental context change could help (e.g., thinking about something other than the task at hand). As soon as you change your context, a new solution comes to mind. Eureka! Next time you are mentally fixated, try using the power of your brain to overcome it.


Alexander recently graduated from Kent State University with a B.A. in Psychology. In his free time, he enjoys cooking, reading about research, and playing video games. His future aspirations include earning his Ph.D. in cognitive psychology researching creativity and metacognitive processes.