The Creative Cliff Illusion: What It Is, What to Do About It

Why we wrongly think we are running out of good ideas  

Cliff approaching . . . Image source: Suicasmo via Wikimedia Commons

Our beliefs or intuitions about ourselves are powerful guides that can, though, sometimes lead us astray.  The “Creative Cliff Illusion” is a striking example of this…

Creative ideas are rarely born in a single isolated instant.  Most creative ideas emerge after a gradual (sometimes bumpy) developmental trajectory that is sustained over minutes, hours, days, or even years.  Novel, unique, and insightful responses often appear after we have devoted sustained thought, time, and effort to searching for creative ideas.

But it may not always feel that way.  Instead, it may feel as though, after a short time, we’ve fully exhausted all the possible good ideas we have.  With time, our new ideas start arriving more slowly.  There’s often lags, lulls, and then even longer lags between each idea.  Our creative search can start to feel increasingly frustrating and unfruitful:  Shouldn’t we just say, “sorry, that’s all that I’ve got” and move on?   

But this is just when we may be right in the heart of the illusory phenomenon, firmly under the sway of the creative cliff illusion.

What Is the Creative Cliff Illusion?

When we’re under this illusion, we take (or rather mis-take) how we feel about our creative thinking process for the actual potential outcomes of our search.  We think:  If it feels frustratingly unproductive, then it must actually be unproductive.  But that’s precisely the illusion, that we’ve reached a sheer creative drop off or cliff in our novel idea generation, yet if only we had persisted…

Let’s take a look at some of the evidence for the illusion. 

A key source of evidence contrasts the predictions or expectations that people have about the trajectory of their creative output on an idea generation task across time with their actual creativity on the same task. 

In one study, participants were asked to generate ideas for how a charity organization might go about increasing donations from its local community.  The participants (110 individuals from Amazon Mechanical Turk) predicted that their creative ideas would be highest during the inital two minutes of the allotted five minutes for this idea generation challenge, and that their creative ideas would decline sharply after about three minutes. 

In fact, independent ratings of the ideas the participants actually generated revealed the exact opposite pattern:  Their actual creative ideas gradually increased throughout the first four minutes, reaching and remaining at the highest levels during the last two minutes of the idea-generation task. 

Was this perhaps because the participants had little knowledge of the task domain?  This seemed not to be the case.  A further study in which the participants were explicitly selected because they had prior experience working for a charity organization yielded a very similar cross-over pattern of expected creative output vs. actual creative output.  The participants expected their creative ideas to start trailing off and to be at their lowest in the final two minutes of their idea generation phase.  Yet it was, in point of fact, during those final two minutes that they produced their most (independently rated) creative ideas.   

Might it have been something about the brief (5 minute) idea generation tasks that led to these outcomes?  Again, this seemed not to be the source of the illusion.  Similar outcomes were found when (a) college students were given 20 minutes to generate ideas for products that their college bookstore could sell that would help roommates to get along better with one another, (b) students, alumni, and community members were asked to identify a challenge that they themselves faced in their everyday lives and given several successive (10-minute and 5-minute) ideation sessions over 5 different days.

It seems that there is a deep and pervasive disconnection between our expectations of when we will be most creative, and when, in fact, we tend to be most creative.  This disconnection, or mistaken perception, is not even dispelled when the creative problems to which we are seeking solutions are highly individual and personal. 

Yet there were a few notable cases in which the illusion seemed to take a less strong hold:  (1) when the participants indicated that they had high levels of everyday creative experience (but not low or medium levels), and (2) when participants were directly instructed and forewarned about the disconnection.  In both of these cases, participants’ predicted pattern of creativity across the ideation task more closely paralleled the trajectory of their actual creativity.

Why “the cliff” matters

Abandoning creative search too soon means that some highly innovative, imaginative, and valuable ideas are never found and never emerge into our awareness.  By truncating our creative search too soon, we settle for outcomes/solutions/approaches to a problem that are less innovative, less creative, less fitting, and less valuable than we might have discovered if we’d only actively searched longer.  

And it’s not just one idea that is thereby forgone.  Because good creative ideas themselves so often spark, support, and segue to other creative ideas (both individually, and collectively, as others learn about a novel emergent idea), it may be an entire cluster or domain of ideas, or an extended lineage of creatively-ignited investigation, that is lost.

What to do about it

  • The first line of defense may be increased awareness of the potential for the “creative cliff” misperception, and to proactively seek to counteract it. 
  • Be patient through the lulls, lags, and lengthy pauses between your own ideas. 
  • Equally important, be patient during the gaps in the idea generation process of others. 
  • Give your ideas (and the ideas of others) some leeway, some space and time around and in between each idea.  Surprising insights, never-before-noticed connections and valuable alternative ways of combining ideas may emerge – if we give (gift!) ourselves the time and space necessary for them to form. 
  • Recognize, too, that persistence in creative search comes in many forms. 
  • Persistence does not necessarily require one long, continuous, or entirely uninterrupted period of dedication to our creative idea pursuit.  A recent lab-based assessment of people’s tendency on creative task items to shift versus to persist (dwell) on a given item revealed that a combination of both dwelling and shifting predicted the number of original ideas that participants generated. Both dwelling and shifting are needed.
  • Interspersed breaks, followed by returning to and reviving your idea search, are likewise modes of persistence, that may ultimately yield rich rewards.

References

Basadur, M., & Thompson, R. (1986). Usefulness of the ideation principle of extended effort in real world professional and managerial creative problem solving.  Journal of Creative Behavior, 20, 23–34.

Chan, J., & Schunn, C. D. (2015).  The importance of iteration in creative conceptual combination.  Cognition, 145, 104–115. 

Lucas, B. J., & Nordgren, L. F. (2020).  The Creative Cliff Illusion.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117, 19830–19836.

Wu, Y., & Koutstaal, W. (2020).  Charting the contributions of cognitive flexibility to creativity: Self-guided transitions as a process-based index of creativity-related adaptivity.  PLOS ONE, 15, Article e0234473.