Being open to new experiences, people and places breeds greater creativity and can spark new, original ideas, according to a new study from a team of international psychologists.

Whether for business or for politics, the study suggests that the most creative among us are those who are open to change and to challenging themselves. But the findings, published in the Journal of Personality, also suggest that openness to new experiences can be fostered in everyone, helping to generate greater creative thinking across societies.

The researchers tested people’s predisposition for divergent thinking – our ability to generate new ideas which go beyond current thinking – and ways that divergent thinking links with our openness to new experiences.

Across three studies, 798 participants completed a divergent thinking test - the ‘brick task’ whereby in just three minutes they were asked to generate as many different uses for a brick as possible. Answers ranged from anything from using bricks as a giant dominoes game, to building a table. These ideas were then scored according to their fluency, flexibility and originality.

In the first two studies, the researchers observed that the most creative among research participants were also very open to new experiences - they had high scores on a personality trait called ‘novelty seeking’. In a third study, the researchers asked whether novelty seeking, and therefore creativity, could be increased in everyone, regardless of personality.

In this third study some participants were asked to consider how new experiences could benefit them (for example, one participant said such experiences would help them ‘discover new things they are good at’), while others were asked to perform a gap filling exercise or simply do nothing at all.

Finally, divergent thinking was measured in all research participants. This allowed the researchers to compare whether divergent thinking increased in those participants who considered the benefits of new experiences, compared to those participants who did not think of such benefits.

Through analysis of the results, the study is the first to clearly demonstrate that novelty seeking can be temporarily increased, and that increasing novelty seeking among participants can shape their thinking and lead to increased creativity.

Lead researcher from our Department of Psychology, Dr Gosia Goclowska explains: “Our study suggests that using the right set of instructions, one that encourages people to embrace novelty and challenge, can lead to increased creativity in nearly everyone.

“Creativity is not limited to geniuses or prodigies. In the right circumstances and with the right mindset most people can be very creative regardless of what personality they have. One way to do this is to cultivate a greater openness towards novelty – for instance by thinking of the benefits that novelty can bring to our life.”

However, the researchers caution that opening up to new experiences might have some limitations.

Dr Goclowska adds: “The application of this research really depends on the person and what they need in a given situation. Opening up to new experiences is useful for someone who wants to generate a lot of new ideas. But some people may already have lots of ideas and need, instead, to focus on promoting these ideas or implementing them. For others, there might be too much going on in their life, and opening up to novelty could make things more stressful, and could potentially undermine performance.

“But there are of course some new situations which we can’t avoid. For instance, sometimes people have to move to a different city or country, learn a new skill, or adapt to changes in their environment. In those circumstances seeking support from others and taking care of our psychological health can increase our ability to cope with change, and can help cultivate a greater openness. In those instances, if we succeed at being open and positive about new experiences, they are likely to be a win-win when it comes to creativity.”