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When Outside the Box Isn't Outside Enough: Pseudo-Creativity and the Brain's Love of Washington DC Politics

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Beware. What is about to follow has nothing to do with being a Republican or a Democrat and yet has everything to do with the reality of Washington D.C. and the world as we know it.

That is, the brain's reality of information processing, especially when we are hard pressed for creative solutions to perplexing problems, like the urgency for economic revival. And believe it or not, being an Independent does not make any difference either. We are all susceptible to illusions around our decision making, no matter the party designation. So what follows is an exploration of the limitations of creative brainstorming that lies outside party politics and has the brain laughing that it has effectively diverted the attention off to the warring parties.

As Obama unveiled his $50 billion dollar infrastructure plan, with opponents saying that it is unrealistic and too late of a spark, I am left thinking more about the conversations "behind the scenes" when solutions were being brainstormed. What kinds of options were discussed? How did the team know they were on to some great ideas? What were the reactions like to all the ideas posed? Was groupthink present or were there more insidious elements lurking in that room? As an executive coach and facilitator I have assisted many a group to go beyond the illusions of the brain and seek TRUE creative solutions -- but what usually stops us isn't external (like the data the parties throw around on the rival-loving political shows): it is internal. A virus to creativity that many don't know about. Let me share more.

If you are like me, you can surf the net and find many a perspective on how to "build a creative team" around any issue; those that think outside the box. Don't you just love this phrase? I mean, we seem so hellbent on getting outside the box all the time that no one knows the "properties of the box" itself. All we know is we want out. Such naivete can lead to something I call "pseudo-creativity," a state of being where the purposeful seeking of contrarian knowledge at all costs can lead to only the feeling of being creative. Many times this emotional reality is really the bottom line, functionally speaking, in business or politics while language of bottom line (financial) is merely verbally noted. Why? We haven't linked knowledge of the verbal world with the neuro-level of processing laws that are actually running the show.

So how do we transcend the feeling of being creative in critical meetings such as the one that likely prompted Obama's new plan?

For one, it is critical to understand the role of language/culture and how it influences the free association-type process of ideas. The brain is highly influenced unconsciously by patterns, things that are known reliably by what it commonly sees in its environment. So even if you consciously set up a brainstorming meeting to get outside this box we have grown so passionately to hate (poor box, eh?) we rarely get what we think we get.

Dr. Charlan Nemeth, a psychologist at UC-Berkeley did some fascinating research on how we can bust through this neurological tendency. When subjects were shown colors on a slide the people simply had to name them. Easy enough, right? These folks then had to do some free association tasks with the colors. Another group had the same task, but in this condition the lab assistant yelled out wrong names of colors sporadically before the subjects responded. So if a yellow slide was shown, they would hear "Red!" These folks then had to free associate on the colors shown them. What was most interesting was in the first group, the free associations were "standard" -- blue would bring up "sky" and green would bring up "grass." But in the second group, where flat out wrong answers were given, they actually free associated a standard deviation or two, shall we say, beyond what we call the normal or safe realm of creative responses. Here, we started hearing responses like "Miles Davis" in response to "blue."

The implications of this experiment on the thought leadership assumptions around presidential strategy is beyond far-reaching. Is it possible to increase dissenting beliefs without triggering the self-protecting beliefs that that dissensions are merely "political rhetoric" known to the "other side?" Are all the creative responses within both parties akin to "sky"-level answers when given a "blue"-question? Do we reward the "wingmen" of brilliant ideas that likely said something flat out wrong right before the eureka? These questions actually transcend the pseudo-creative solution of "joining two parties." For without this neuroscience information in your pocket you are left with a Kumbaya-effect that numbs you to the truth that something greater than this is called for.

This is why the brain loves Washington D.C. -- it willingly bows down to the pseudo-creative answer of "bipartisan politics" that it lets you think you came up with brilliantly, all the while it rolled a smoke bomb into your consciousness and it scurries away, nowhere to be found when you come to. But when you do shake it off, no need to worry. There will always be another answer equally wrong to make right by your own illusions.