Psychiatric Annals

The articles prior to January 2012 are part of the back file collection and are not available with a current paid subscription. To access the article, you may purchase it or purchase the complete back file collection here

Creativity and Coping With Boredom

Daniel S P Schubert, MD, PhD

Abstract

1. London, H.. Schubert, D. S. P.. and Washburn, D. Increase of autonomic arousal by boredom. J. Abnorm. Psychol. BO (1972), 29-36.

2. Schubert, D. S. P. Independence of intelligence and creativity only at upper levels. J. Genet. Psychol. 122 (1973). 45-47.

3. Schubert. D. S. P. Arousal seeking as a motivation for volunteering. Journal of Projective Techniques and Personality Assessment 23 (1964),337-340.

4. Schubert. D. S. P. Arousal seeking as a central factor in tobacco smoking among college students. Int. J. Soc. Psychiatry 11 (1965), 221-225.

5. Schubert, D. S. P.. and Wagner. M. E. A subcultural change of MMPI norms in the 1960s due to adolescent role confusion and glamorizalion ol alienation. J. Abnorm. Psychol. 84 (1975), 406-411.

6. Schubert. D. S. P.. and Biondi, A. Creativity and mental health; Part IV. J. Creative Behavior. (In press.).

7. Morin, S. F., and Clark, P. M. Influence of massed versus distributed work sessions on creative thinking. In Proceedings of the 81st Annual Convention, American Psychiatric Association - 1973. Washington. D.C.: A. P.A., 1974.

8. Maltzman, I., Simon, S., Raskin. D., and Licht, L. Experimental studies in the training of originality. Psychol. Monogr. 74: 6 (whole No. 493, 1960).

9. Schubert, 0. S. P. Increase of creativity by prior response to a problem. J. Gen. Psychol. 96 (1977), 323-324.

10. Crutchfieid, R S. Detrimental effects ol conformity pressures on creative thinking. Psychol. Beitr. 6 (1962), 464-471.

11. Allen, V. L., and Levine, J. M. Creativity and conformity. J. Pers. 36 (1968), 405-419.

12. Dauw, D. C. Creativity research on actuaries. J. Creative Behavior 2 (1968). 274-280.

13. Marsh, J. G.. and Simon, H. A. Organizations. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1958.

14. Egan, D. Creativity in management. J. Creative Behavior 3 (1969), 178-184.

15. Lipowski. Z. J. Sensory and Information overload. Behavior effects. Compr. Psychiatry 16 (1975), 199-211.…

Situations that are boring for you may not be boring for me.

Often, when a person is transferred to a new job, the level of activity decreases. If the job is repetitive and monotonous, the reason may be that the person finds the job boring. A reassignment of personnel may be in order, not only to increase productivity but also to keep from blunting the person's creativity.

The "job" of undergoing psychotherapy is an example of an experience that can stifle one person's creativity but not another's. So we must ask: Are there really personality types that tend to be bored more easily than others in certain situations? And if there are, what are the various reasons for such boredom? Obviously, if the psychiatrist can identify the boredom-prone patient early enough, he can be on guard for the reactions he can expect from such a patient during treatment.

How does this relate to creativity in psychotherapy? Frequently, the goal of increasing the patient's adjustment and that of increasing his creativity will be served by the same treatment. And in some cases, boredom will be decreased by the same therapy. The psychiatrist who keeps relationships to creativity and boredom in mind while administering psychotherapy will be aided in understanding his patients' actions, as well as in anticipating their reactions to certain situations.

In this discussion of boredom and creativity, I want to consider the topic under seven aspects: the relationship of intelligence to boredom, the thrill-seeking personality, identity diffusion and boredom, creative responses to a boring situation, conformity and creativity, tolerance for repetitive work, and providing time for creativity.

INTELLIGENCE, BOREDOM, AND CREATIVITY

The performance of a repetitive task is one type of situation that many people find monotonous or boring. In an experiment in which I participated a few years ago,1 volunteers were asked to write the letters c and d over and over again. The subjects were adolescent boys, and the test lasted for 30 minutes. We found that they varied considerably in the extent to which they found this task boring. There was a definite correlation, however, between intelligence and boredom: the higher the intelligence, the more boring the subject found this monotonous, repetitive task to be.

This finding has implications for the psychiatrist's perception of how well a person is suited to a particular job, including his perception of how boring the patient may find his job. If the psychiatrist assumes that a repetitive, monotonous job will be boring to the patient, he may be incorrect. Some patients may find such a job not boring at all but within their grasp of mastery and thus satisfying. This is not to say that the psychiatrist, if placed in the same job, would not find it boring. It does indicate that the speed at which a person can achieve mastery in performing a task may be related to its experiential value as being boring or not boring.

If you are bored while performing a repetitive task, does it mean that you are creative? Not necessarily. The type of creativity associated with problem solving has been found to relate to intelligence. But if one studies only those who rank in the upper levels on intelligence tests, a relationship between higher creativity and higher intelligence cannot be shown.2 So the fact that a person is intelligent does not necessarily mean that he is creative. Creativity can be shown to have a direct relationship to intelligence only when the creativity-intelligence study is designed to cover the entire range of intelligence, from very low through very high.

By extension of these two relationships, one might expect that people who find repetitive tasks boring would be more creative than those who do not. In my opinion, the relationship would not be a strong one, although it might be found to exist if a sufficiently large number of people were studied.

THRILL-SEEKING PERSONALrTIES

The person who constantly seeks physical thrills will be found to be bored when confronted with many ordinary situations in which repetitive work is not a factor. Such a person would be characterized in diagnostic terms as having a personality disorder of the hypomanic type.3,4

The thrill-seeking person finds a situation in which physical excitement exists to be nonboring. But he does not respond to intellectual or cognitive challenges or problems. Thus, in a test situation entailing multiple-answer problem solving, his persistence will be of shorter duration, and the number of answers completed will be smaller, than that of a person whose ability is similar but who finds the more intellectual type of problem solving both challenging and exciting.

People who seek physical thrills include those who abuse stimulant and depressant drugs, as well as those who do dangerous things "just for the thrill of it." Examples of the items the thrillseeking person will endorse in psychologic tests are "I would like to hunt lions in Africa" and "I would like to be a sports-car racer." This type of person tends to be excessively action oriented; he is unable to tolerate ambiguity or unresolved situations long enough to produce alternative solutions.

If the psychiatrist achieves his treatment goal with such a patient, he will also increase the person's creative ability to solve problems. Group therapy is often more effective with such patients than individual psychotherapy, since the person with a personality disorder will react negatively to the authority of a single person - e.g., the psychiatrist. It may be possible to encourage a positive relationship between someone with a thrill-seeking personality and another person who tends to be excessively action oriented. If this occurs, psychotherapy can take the form of urging patients to delay immediate action on a situation for part of a day or a full day or two, promising them that at the end of the interval they may take whatever action they deem appropriate. Occasionally such a technique will enable a self-destructive, action-oriented person to learn to tolerate ambiguity and to discover alternative solutions before taking action on a problem.

IDENTITY DIFFUSION

A second type of person who often complains of boredom is the one who is unsure of his own identity.5 The onset of this condition is usually during adolescence; for whatever reason, the person is unable to achieve a stable identity formation. By "identity diffusion" I mean that the person is confused about what role he should play, what vocation he should pursue, what his life goals should be.

Many adolescents presented themselves as having an identity crisis during the late 1960s, for the tenor of the times made this style of alienation culturally popular.5

These people may show indications of maladjustment on psychologic tests. There is evidence that the glamorization of alienation in society in the late 1960s and early 1970s had an effect on identity diffusion. For example, a group of adolescents tested in 1975 had significantly higher maladjustment scores on most of the adjustment scales in the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory test than a comparison group receiving the same test in the late 1950s.

I made an attempt to determine whether there was a relationship between MMPI scores and creativity in a study completed in 1975. 6 The results showed that persons with higher maladjustment scores on the MMPI were less creative at problem solving than those with lower scores. This is consistent with the suggestion offered above, that the person who gets bored easily is not necessarily creative. He may just be maladjusted.

For the psychiatrist, a practical application of this information might be made in providing psychotherapy for those with identity diffusion. Successful therapy should increase their ability to solve problems creatively. At the same time, there is likely to be a decrease in the amount of boredom they report.

People who consistently report boredom do not score well in tests designed to measure their creative ability at problem solving. When, through therapy, efforts are successful in decreasing their boredom, their problem-solving creativity is likely to increase.

On the other hand, those who are bored only by monotonous, repetitive tasks are likely to be the most successful in solving complex, multiple-answer problems for which creative insights are demanded.

CREATIVE RESPONSES TO A BORING SITUATION

Several studies indicate that people, when they come up with unoriginal answers to questions that might be labeled "boring," tend to come up with much more creative answers if given the opportunity to provide further answers. For example, persons working continuously on a problem for which many correct answers were possible developed more original responses over a 60-minute period than a group of matched controls who worked on the problem for three 20-minute sessions, each separated by a 20-minute rest period.7 Members of the latter group tended to repeat the same set of answers they developed during the first period when they returned to the problem in subsequent sessions. The conclusion is that when persons become bored with their initial answers after working continuously on a problem, they may move on to produce more creative solutions.

In another study, subjects were asked to make associations with a given list of words.8 They were given the same list of words five times. Each time the list was presented, the number of "full, unique, associative responses" kept rising. When the list was first presented to the subjects, only 10 per cent of the responses were unique; by the time it had been presented for the fifth time, 70 per cent were unique. The investigators also concluded that the subjects became bored when asked to make associations for the same list of words again and again, and their boredom led to the creation of more original responses.

We have just completed a study that bears on this point.9 The study was designed to see if more original responses could be elicited from subjects after they became bored. Each subject was given a list of problems, each of which had many possible correct answers. Norms were established in advance to rate the creativeness of the various solutions. Responses to each question were divided into a first half and a second half. The responses given in the second half were significantly more creative than those in the first half. The subject's boredom increased as he worked through the problems in the first half of the test; by the time he reached the second half, his answers were more creative.

This type of association series seems to have implications for the free-association technique used by some psychiatrists. Here again, in the attempt at continual association, the uniqueness of the individual may be gradually revealed. Earlier associations that tend to be more usual produce boredom, and the subject moves on to more individualistic responses that manifest his personality.

CONFORMING AND CREATIVITY

In general, creativity is inversely related to conformity, as the literature amply indicates. The more a person conforms to expected norms in a given situation, the less creative he is. Crutchfield10 believed there were two reasons for this. First, the pressures of conformity tend to make the individual conscious of what others will say, so he makes choices on that basis. (Creativity, on the other hand, is highest when the person is most concerned about his own evaluation of the performance, rather than someone else's.) A second reason, Crutchfield suggested, is that the type of personality that tends to conform most easily is the one with traits inconsistent with creativity - anxiety, rigidity, low ego strength, lack of spontaneity, intolerance of ambiguity, conventional attitudes, feelings of personal inferiority, dependence towards others, and overreliance on "orthodox" values.

In an experiment reported by Allen and Levine,11 an attempt was made to see whether conformity would decrease after the subjects were given creativity training. The researchers found that, even in subjects with low IQs, conformity tended to decrease after creativity training. Thus, the usual relationship between low intelligence and conformity failed to hold after the creativity training. In a control group the usual relationship held: as intelligence decreased, the amount of conformity increased.

One of the explanations for this finding may be that boredom results in response to external pressures for conformity. Creativity then could be the result of either of two factors: the person simply disregarded the external pressure to conform and thereby allowed himself to be creative, or efforts were successful in reducing the external pressures so that creativity could be stimulated.

These experiments may be of interest to the psychotherapist, since so much of psychotherapy encourages nonconformity (or, at least, does not discourage it). Thus the therapist could expect his patient to be more creative and less bored after a therapeutic session. The therapist, of course, could overtly approve the patient's nonconforming words or deeds. Most psychiatrists, however, are likely to be more subtle, not giving the anticipated response to questions the patient may ask about his conformity or lack of it. For example, if the patient asks - directly or indirectly - if he should conform, the therapist will probably not encourage him to conform and may suggest that at times it is certainly acceptable behavior not to conform.

TOLERANCE FOR REPETITIVE WORK

Actuaries are people whose work, by its very nature, contains a great deal of repetition. Working in such fields as insurance, governmental social-security administrations, and municipal departments of vital statistics, they deal with the theory of probability, actual birth and death statistics, and their relation to both theoretical and applied statistics.

In a study of creativity and actuaries, Dauw12 found that the less creative the individual, the better suited he was for actuarial work; conversely, the higher the person scored on creativity tests, the more at risk he was for unsuccessful employment as an actuary. Repetitive work, when assigned to creative people, can be assumed to produce boredom. Although not everyone will respond to an assignment of repetitive work by being bored, those who are bored should be assigned to situations where there is less repetition.

Thus the vocational counselor, when suggesting employment in fields in which there is normally a great deal of repetitive work, should keep in mind the two types of personalities most apt to be bored by such work: the highly creative and those that tend to respond to most nonphysical endeavors with boredom. The latter have been described as "arousal seekers."3,4

The psychotherapist must be able to judge his patient's tolerance for a repetitive type of situation. Some patients find comfort in repetition; others are bored. Some of those who become bored are the creative people who are usually a delight for the psychiatrist to treat. But the psychiatrist must be on his guard, since in much of psychotherapy, where the patient takes the initiative, he will be able to maneuver the situation to his own liking. That is to say, if the patient becomes bored during the session, he will change the topic frequently and thereby enliven the discussion for himself. On the other hand, the patient who feels safe in a repetitive situation will tend to repeat the same type of talk again and again. Understandably, this is likely to result in the boredom of the psychiatrist. As we all know, this type of patient can be changed only very gradually.

FREE TIME FOR CREATIVITY

The distinction between programmed and unprogrammed activity13 has a definite bearing on boredom and creativity. Programmed activities are those that are organized and decided on in advance; unprogrammed activities are those that are unscheduled and free-ranging. As Marsh and Simon13 have indicated, when programmed activity is introduced into a situation, it tends to drive out unprogrammed activity.

Therefore, if one wants to stimulate creativity, he must take steps to see that the person who is being stimulated to be more creative has an adequate amount of free time. The reason is that creative activity requires time for new responses, and they are likely to appear during unprogrammed rather than programmed time. This has a particular bearing on companies that want their managements to be more creative, as Egan14 has noted. (An exception, of course, would be the type of programmed period that is boring to the subject. Presumably, in such circumstances he could be bored to the point where creativity would be stimulated.)

Of course, not everyone responds to unprogrammed activity. Many people prefer a high rate of sensory input, some to the point of sensory overload.15 In most such situations, little creative work is done. An example of the response to excessive amounts of unprogrammed activity, on the other hand, can be found in the various studies on sensory deprivation, where people deprived of most of their sensory input often find the situation uncomfortable rather than relishing the amount of "unprogrammed" time at their disposal.

These reactions are often seen in psychiatry when the therapist encourages the patient to allow his thoughts to wander in an unprogrammed fashion. The patient who is accustomed to, and likes, a more programmed environment will find the period devoted to free association distinctly uncomfortable.

But the process of psychotherapy should be a creative one for the patient, so that he can find new solutions to some of his problems by himself. The psychotherapist, it is true, may suggest the idea of alternative solutions to the patient, but the creative decision to act on a new way of approaching the problem should be that oí the patient and the patient alone. And so he needs time - unprogrammed time - to achieve these creative decisions. (With some patients, of course, it is desirable not to encourage new solutions to the problem but, rather, to emphasize the reality and the nature of environmental constraints.)

CONCLUSION

Boredom and creativity are, in general, at opposite ends of the scale. Most activities that tend to produce boredom also tend to decrease creativity. Inversely, people are less bored when they have the opportunity to be creative than when they are placed in situations where they do not have the opportunity.

In working with a patient, the psychotherapist should first determine his need for external stimulation and for environmental constraints. Once this has been done, the therapist can determine which approach is indicated - one emphasizing repetition or one employing unprogrammed, creative associations.

For many patients undergoing psychotherapy, the therapist's goals will be to bring them to the point where they are motivated to make their own creative decisions about the problems in their lives. This will require an unprogrammed approach. It is frequently an elusive goal and one that takes a long time to reach - particularly for patients whose life has been highly programmed.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

1. London, H.. Schubert, D. S. P.. and Washburn, D. Increase of autonomic arousal by boredom. J. Abnorm. Psychol. BO (1972), 29-36.

2. Schubert, D. S. P. Independence of intelligence and creativity only at upper levels. J. Genet. Psychol. 122 (1973). 45-47.

3. Schubert. D. S. P. Arousal seeking as a motivation for volunteering. Journal of Projective Techniques and Personality Assessment 23 (1964),337-340.

4. Schubert. D. S. P. Arousal seeking as a central factor in tobacco smoking among college students. Int. J. Soc. Psychiatry 11 (1965), 221-225.

5. Schubert, D. S. P.. and Wagner. M. E. A subcultural change of MMPI norms in the 1960s due to adolescent role confusion and glamorizalion ol alienation. J. Abnorm. Psychol. 84 (1975), 406-411.

6. Schubert. D. S. P.. and Biondi, A. Creativity and mental health; Part IV. J. Creative Behavior. (In press.).

7. Morin, S. F., and Clark, P. M. Influence of massed versus distributed work sessions on creative thinking. In Proceedings of the 81st Annual Convention, American Psychiatric Association - 1973. Washington. D.C.: A. P.A., 1974.

8. Maltzman, I., Simon, S., Raskin. D., and Licht, L. Experimental studies in the training of originality. Psychol. Monogr. 74: 6 (whole No. 493, 1960).

9. Schubert, 0. S. P. Increase of creativity by prior response to a problem. J. Gen. Psychol. 96 (1977), 323-324.

10. Crutchfieid, R S. Detrimental effects ol conformity pressures on creative thinking. Psychol. Beitr. 6 (1962), 464-471.

11. Allen, V. L., and Levine, J. M. Creativity and conformity. J. Pers. 36 (1968), 405-419.

12. Dauw, D. C. Creativity research on actuaries. J. Creative Behavior 2 (1968). 274-280.

13. Marsh, J. G.. and Simon, H. A. Organizations. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1958.

14. Egan, D. Creativity in management. J. Creative Behavior 3 (1969), 178-184.

15. Lipowski. Z. J. Sensory and Information overload. Behavior effects. Compr. Psychiatry 16 (1975), 199-211.

10.3928/0048-5713-19780301-06

Sign up to receive

Journal E-contents