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Brainstorming doesn’t work?

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Jonah Lehrer’s New Yorker article, announcing that “Brainstorming Doesn’t Really Work”, was forwarded to me by at least two friends. Curious about this claim, I read the article, the 2004 study on how brainstorming versus debate conducted by researchers from the US and France that the article relies heavily on, and one blogger’s rebuttal of Lehrer’s piece.

It is worth closely reading these three. Overall, I am convinced that dissent and debate are useful for generating more ideas than a kind of pure, uncritical open-endedness. However, one important idea from the rebuttal article is that “the intention of brainstorming is not to eliminate critique, but simply to postpone it.” This is significant. Brainstorming is not the only (or even necessarily the most effective) tool in the arsenal. And these tools can be wielded in quick succession, or even concurrently, so that they can work in the most optimal way.

Something else bothered me about the study. The experiments were conducted in the US and France. In the US study, 265 volunteers participated, all of whom were the same sex (women). Eighty-five percent of the 207 participants in the French study were women. The groups were segregated into same sex groups, presumably to factor out any effects of gendered criticism. It’s a fairly contrived set of circumstances. In most of the groups I deal with, there is usually a diverse mix of genders, and I find that I notice that gender, gender relations, and gender performances play a significant role in the way that people dish out and receive negative feedback. One can only wonder whether the same sex setup might have had an effect in the outcome. Ideally they should have had at least one group composed of mixed sexes. I find it surprising that there was no attempt in the discussion of the results to at least explain their decision to segregate via sex and to hypothesize how this might have affected the outcomes..

The rebuttal article also makes a great point that the “debate group” was actually given both the instructions to brainstorm and to criticize ideas. I think the overall lesson from this is that to generate ideas effectively, all rules should be made explicit. This idea is in fact borne by one of the findings of the study: a group that was given no instructions other than to come up with ideas (no mention of whether criticism was encouraged or discouraged).

I remember reading somewhere that in psychology, researchers particularly often aim to arrive at conclusions that contradict common sense or very well-established findings. The more surprising the claim, the more cachet it potentially has. It is worth keeping this in the back of our minds when reading research reports in psychology.

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