Recent evidence strongly suggests that the U.S. is facing a growing shortage of novel ideas. Worse, the cost of getting these ideas is growing while their quality seems to be declining. Left unchanged, this trend may have serious negative consequences for American innovation.
One of the possible approaches to reversing this trend could be strengthening the ideation process by stimulating creativity. In a recent post, I described a study showing that creativity could be boosted by moderate procrastination. The authors of the study argued that moderate procrastination sets in motion a mechanism of problem restructuring, which results in the production of more out-of-the-box ideas.
Promoting procrastination, however moderate, goes against the established cultural norms that force us to always stay (or at least pretend to be) busy. What the scientific data seems to be telling instead is that treating our brain with occasional spells of a quiet, unrushed deliberation may make us more creative.
Another way to stimulate creativity—while, again, going against multiple social boos and taboos–might be to consume moderate amounts of alcohol. This seemingly fancy (and even offensive to many) idea stems from a scientific study described in a 2018 article in Harvard Business Review. The authors of the study treated a group of men aged 21-30 to a vodka/cranberry juice mix in three drinks over a 30-minute period until their blood alcohol level reached near legal intoxication level (0.075). Then they were given a series of word association problems to solve.
The result? Tipsy subjects solved 13% to 20% more problems—and did it faster–than their sober peers in the control group. The authors of the study hypothesized that people under the influence were more susceptible to so-called mind wandering, which results in losing some focus but gaining instead the ability to see a “bigger picture.” This effect, of course, can be harmful in many situations requiring concentration but it might be helpful in others where the ability to connect the proverbial dots is needed more than the ability to focus on a single dot.
I like this study for one simple reason. Ethyl alcohol, as opposed to many narcotics or drugs, is a simple chemical molecule, whose behavior in the human body is quite well understood. Using this relatively simple model, researchers may start identifying specific neurochemical reactions in the brain that are responsible for creativity.
It turns out that the benefits of alcohol consumption may extend to our social life—all despite the widely-held assumption that drinking causes serious social problems. A study conducted back in 2006 found that self-reported drinkers earned 10-14% more than abstainers. Moreover, males who frequented bars at least once per month—so-called social drinkers–earned an additional 7% on top of the 10-14% drinkers’ premium.
The authors of this study hypothesized that the factor leading to higher earnings by drinking people was their increased social capital. Wikipedia defines social capital as “the networks of relationships among people who live and work in a particular society, enabling that society to function effectively.” To me, the key word in this definition is “networks.” Social drinkers might be more successful because they form and maintain networks with other folks—and do this better than non-drinkers.
A 2019 study linked alcohol-consumption-based social networks (and their disruption) to innovation. After the imposition of state-level alcohol prohibition in the U.S. in 1920-1933, previously wet counties had 8-18% fewer patents per year relative to consistently dry counties. The effect was largest in the first three years after the imposition of prohibition and rebounded thereafter. The author attributes this effect to the disruption of existing social interactions and subsequent formation of new, non-alcohol-based ones.
I suspect that when the final tally of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on innovation is tabulated, we’ll be shocked by the results, by the damage that the Lockdown of the Century has caused to our ability to generate new products and business models. Sure, disrupted networks will be eventually restored but how shall we make up for the irreversible loss of human interactions over the past year?
But I don’t want to end this piece on a sour note. A national survey in September 2020 found that American adults have increased their consumption of alcohol during the pandemic: the overall frequency of alcohol consumption increased by 14% among adults over age 30, compared to the same time last year. Who knows, a spike in creativity caused by alcohol consumption may compensate for the negative effect of disrupted networks.
If so, not all is lost for American innovation.
Check out my eBook, “We the People of the Crowd…,” a collection of stories about crowdsourcing reflecting my personal experience in working with corporate and nonprofit clients.
Image credit: “Absinthe Lover” by Pablo Picasso