Divergent thinking

Divergent thinking is a thought process or method used to generate creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions. It is often used in conjunction with its cognitive colleague, convergent thinking, which follows a particular set of logical steps to arrive at one solution, which in some cases is a ‘correct’ solution. By contrast, divergent thinking typically occurs in a spontaneous, free-flowing, 'non-linear' manner, such that many ideas are generated in an emergent cognitive fashion. Many possible solutions are explored in a short amount of time, and unexpected connections are drawn. After the process of divergent thinking has been completed, ideas and information are organized and structured using convergent thinking.

The psychologist J.P. Guilford first coined the terms convergent thinking and divergent thinking in 1956.

A map of how Divergent Thinking works

Traits associated with divergent thinking

Psychologists have found that a high IQ alone does not guarantee creativity. Instead, personality traits that promote divergent thinking are more important. Divergent thinking is found among people with personality traits such as nonconformity, curiosity, willingness to take risks, and persistence.

Promoting divergent thinking

Activities which promote divergent thinking include creating lists of questions, setting aside time for thinking and meditation, brainstorming, subject mapping, bubble mapping, keeping a journal, playing tabletop role-playing games,[1] creating artwork, and free writing. In free writing, a person will focus on one particular topic and write non-stop about it for a short period of time, in a stream of consciousness fashion.

Playfulness and divergent thinking

Parallels have been drawn between playfulness in kindergarten-aged children and divergent thinking. In a study documented by Lieberman,[2] the relationship between these two traits was examined, with playfulness being “conceptualized and operationally defined in terms of five traits: physical, social and cognitive spontaneity; manifest joy; and sense of humour".[2] The author noted that during the study, while observing the children’s behaviour at play, they "noted individual differences in spontaneity, overtones of joy, and sense of humour that imply a relationship between the foregoing qualities and some of the factors found in the intellectual structure of creative adults and adolescents”.[2] This study highlighted the link between behaviours of divergent thinking, or creativity, in playfulness during childhood and those displayed in later years, in creative adolescents and adults.

Future research opportunities in this area could explore a longitudinal study of kindergarten-aged children and the development or evolution of divergent thinking abilities throughout adolescence, into adulthood, in order to substantiate the link drawn between playfulness and divergent thinking in later life. This would be an interesting long-term study as it would help parents and teachers identify this behaviour (or lack thereof) in children, specifically at an age when it can be reinforced if already displayed, or supported if not yet displayed.

Effects of positive and negative mood on divergent thinking

In a study at the University of Bergen, Norway, the effects of positive and negative mood on divergent-thinking were examined.[3] In this study, nearly two hundred arts and psychology students participated, first by measuring their moods with an adjective checklist before performing the required tasks. The results showed a clear distinction in performance between those with a self-reported positive versus negative mood:

Results showed natural positive mood to facilitate significantly task performance and negative mood to inhibit it… The results suggest that persons in elevated moods may prefer satisficing strategies, which would lead to a higher number of proposed solutions. Persons in a negative mood may choose optimizing strategies and be more concerned with the quality of their ideas, which is detrimental to performance on this kind of task.
(Vosburg, 1998)

A series of related studies suggested a link between positive mood and the promotion of cognitive flexibility.[4][5] In a 1990 study by Murray, Sujan, Hirt and Sujan,[6] this hypothesis was examined more closely and “found positive mood participants were able to see relations between concepts”, as well as demonstrating advanced abilities “in distinguishing the differences between concepts”.[3] This group of researchers drew a parallel between “their findings and creative problem solving by arguing that participants in a positive mood are better able both to differentiate between and to integrate unusual and diverse information”.[3] This shows that their subjects are at a distinct cognitive advantage when performing divergent thinking-related tasks in an elevated mood. Further research could take this topic one step further to explore effective strategies to improve divergent thinking when in a negative mood, for example how to move beyond “optimizing strategies” into “satisficing strategies” rather than focus on “the quality of their ideas”, in order to generate more ideas and creative solutions.[3]

Effects of sleep deprivation on divergent thinking

While little research has been conducted on the impact of sleep deprivation on divergent thinking, one study by J.A. Horne,[7] illustrated that even when motivation to perform well is maintained, sleep can still impact divergent thinking performance. In this study, twelve subjects were deprived of sleep for thirty-two hours, while a control group of twelve others maintained normal sleep routine. Subjects’ performance on both a word fluency task, and a challenging nonverbal planning test, was “significantly impaired by sleep loss”, even when the factor of personal motivation to perform well was controlled.[7] This study showed that even “one night of sleep loss can affect divergent thinking”, which “contrasts with the outcome for convergent thinking tasks, which are more resilient to short-term sleep loss”.[7] Research on sleep deprivation and divergent thinking could be further explored on a biological or chemical level, to identify the reason why cognitive functioning, as it relates to divergent thinking, is impacted by lack of sleep and if there is a difference in its impact if subjects are deprived of REM versus non-REM sleep.

See also


  1. Dyson, Scott Benjamin; Chang, Yu-Lin; Chen, Hsueh-Chih; Hsiung, Hsiang-Yu; Tseng, Chien-Chih; Chang, Jen-Ho (March 2016). "The effect of tabletop role-playing games on the creative potential and emotional creativity of Taiwanese college students". Thinking Skills and Creativity. 19: 88–96. doi:10.1016/j.tsc.2015.10.004.
  2. 1 2 3 Lieberman, J. Nina (1965-12-01). "Playfulness and Divergent Thinking: An Investigation of their Relationship at the Kindergarten Level". The Journal of Genetic Psychology. 107 (2): 219–224. doi:10.1080/00221325.1965.10533661. ISSN 0022-1325.
  3. 1 2 3 4 Vosburg, Suzanne K. (1998-04-01). "The Effects of Positive and Negative Mood on Divergent-Thinking Performance". Creativity Research Journal. 11 (2): 165–172. doi:10.1207/s15326934crj1102_6. ISSN 1040-0419.
  4. Isen, Alice M.; Daubman, Kimberly A. (1984-12-01). "The influence of affect on categorization.". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 47 (6): 1206–1217. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.47.6.1206. ISSN 1939-1315.
  5. Isen, Alice M.; Johnson, Mitzi M.; Mertz, Elizabeth; Robinson, Gregory F. "The influence of positive affect on the unusualness of word associations.". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 48 (6): 1413–1426. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.48.6.1413.
  6. Murray, Noel; Sujan, Harish; Hirt, Edward R.; Sujan, Mita. "The influence of mood on categorization: A cognitive flexibility interpretation.". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 59 (3): 411–425. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.59.3.411.
  7. 1 2 3 Horne, J. A. (1988). "Sleep Loss and "Divergent Thinking" Ability" (PDF). Sleep. Raven Press, Ltd, NY. 11 (6): 528–536.

External links

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