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Dr. Catrinel Haught, Rider University – Constraint and Creativity

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Catrinel Haught of Rider University explores the importance constraint plays in fostering creative thought. 

Catrinel Haught is an assistant professor of psychology at Rider University in Lawrenceville, New Jersey. As a cognitive psychologist, her main research interest is the psychology of language and she has conducted research projects focused on creativity, reasoning, and organizational behavior.  She holds a Ph.D. from Princeton University.

About Dr. Haught

Dr. Catrinel Haught – Constraint and Creativity

When we think of creativity, what usually comes to mind is an open field where anything is possible and there are no limitations. Yet, often, a blank slate can overwhelm us with its possibilities.

The idea of imposing constraints on creativity might sound counterintuitive, but constraints can actually inspire us. In the reality show “Top Chef”, for example, contestants produce astounding dishes that start with the constraint of a featured ingredient or theme – interestingly, those who succeed in the earlier, constrained, rounds sometimes fail when asked to create an open-ended, four-course “meal of their dreams.”

Igor Stravinsky, the immortal composer of “Firebird” and “The Rite of Spring”, could relate. He wrote about the “anguish into which an unrestricted freedom plunged [him],” and concluded: “Whatever diminishes constraint diminishes strength.”

My theory places constraints at the heart of the creative process. It predicts that the greater the number of constraints, within reason, the more creative people are likely to be.

I asked people to make up sentences prompted by words like “elephant” or pictures of an elephant. The word could refer to any instance of the concept, whereas the picture constrained it to one particular elephant.  Just as predicted, people were more creative given the pictures.

In another experiment, I asked people to come up with a rhyming message for someone’s birthday or anniversary.  Again, people were more creative when their task was constrained: starting the message with a given letter of the alphabet and even including an arbitrarily selected word seemed to help.

So the next time you’re struggling to deliver a witty toast, whip up a meal, or prepare a persuasive pitch, try constraining your task first.  It certainly worked for Stravinsky, and it might surprise you just how well it works for you too.


Production support for the Academic Minute comes from Newman’s Own, giving all profits to charity and pursuing the common good for over 30 years, and from Mount Holyoke College.

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