Creativity Thrives on Idea of Scarcity, Carey Study Shows


When it comes to creativity, less can be more, according to a study co-authored by Johns Hopkins Carey Business School Assistant Professor Meng Zhu.

Co-authored by Ravi Mehta from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and published in the Journal of Consumer Research, the study explores the relationship between two modern truths: More resources are available to consumers than ever before, and the value of creativity in aspects of society is rising.

It raises the question: Has a proliferation of resources led to a more creative world? The answer is maybe not, according to the study. Instead, the study suggests the emergence of a surprising dichotomy ― namely, that creativity thrives on the perception of scarcity.

“Contrary to common belief, abundant resources may have a negative effect on creativity,” Zhu and Mehta wrote in the study. “We found that scarcity forces consumers to think beyond the traditional function of a given product and enhances creativity.”

The study hinges on a key distinction about the perception of resources available to a consumer. Building on existing research that suggests actual scarcity of resources can lead to more creative outcomes, their research suggests that someone’s perception about the scarcity or abundance of resources – as opposed to the actual availability of resources – has a strong influence on creative output.

Exploring perception is important, they say, because “consumers are frequently exposed to scarcity cues in daily decision environments, and these encounters could impact their mindset and carry over to subsequent events where creativity may be called for,” the co-authors wrote.

The duo conducted six experiments in the study. In the experiments, the participants were randomly divided into three groups based on their mindset activated in the experiment: a scarcity mindset, an abundance mindset, and a control group.

The mindsets were created by having participants engage in activities like writing essays or Internet searches explicitly about either scarcity or abundance of resources immediately prior to conducting a creative task. (The control groups were immediately directed to the creative tasks).

The tasks ranged from building a candle holder from a box of tacks, to a toy-building competition using Lego-like building pieces, to developing a series of creative uses for a brick. In each experiment, the participants exposed to a scarcity mindset were repeatedly judged – by both subjective, independent judges and objective measures – to have developed the more novel products and solutions.

“These findings have important implications for industries that thrive on the creativity of their employees and consumers, such as home décor or fashion. More broadly, the findings pose a significant cultural question: as societies become more abundant, do average creativity levels decrease? Thinking ‘inside the box’ could come at a considerable cost,” the authors conclude.

Posted on June 2, 2016 In Research Story, Alumni, Current Students