Friday, October 16, 2015

Does Group Participation When Using Brainstorming Facilitate or Inhibit Creative Thinking?

By Donald W. Taylor, Paul C. Berry, Clifford H. Block

The authors assert that group participation when using brainstorming inhibits creative thinking. They had conducted an experiment at Yale University to test ‘Does Group Participation When Using Brainstorming Facilitate or Inhibit Creative Thinking’ with 96 Yale juniors and seniors. Initially, they formed twelve groups of four men and 48 individuals; and after conducting the experiment they randomly divided 48 individuals into twelve nominal groups of four men. These twelve nominal group’s results then used as a measure to test the study title.

The study asked the groups/individuals to generate ideas on three problems which authors described shortly as ‘Tourists Problem’, ‘Thumbs Problem’, and ‘Teacher Problem’. (You may find detailed problem definitions in article).

Results and Findings

On each of the three problems, the mean number of ideas presented by real groups is much larger than that presented by individuals. This suggested that group study stimulate producing more ideas.
The mean numbers of responses produced by nominal groups were considerably larger than that produced by real groups on each of the three problems. The study also compared the nominal groups’ and real groups’ responses in terms of originality and quality. Again the number of mean responses of nominal groups were superior to the real groups. However, the authors were suspicious that this may had occurred because the number of responses of nominal groups were high than the real groups’ ones. Therefore, they conducted covariance analyses to deal with this challenge. What they find was intriguing: there were no significant difference between real and nominal groups in number of unique responses on either the Tourists Problem or the Teachers Problem. Moreover, the covariance analyses favored real groups’ responses on Thumbs Problem in uniqueness of their responses.
The authors conducted another series of analyses to measure and compare the real and nominal groups’ responses’ qualities. They evaluated the responses given to three problems from effectiveness, probability, generality, significance, and feasibility dimensions. On each of the five dimensions for each of the three problems, the mean scores for the nominal groups were much larger than those for the real groups. The authors again conducted a covariance analyses to determine the significant differences between each groups. For the Thumbs, but not for the Tourists and Teachers Problems, there was a superiority of the nominal over the real groups on the five evaluating dimensions over and above that accounted for by a superiority in total number of responses.
To recap the findings, the group interaction inhibits the creative thinking. And the authors provided two possible reasons for that:
  1. It appears probable that the individual working in a group feels less free of possible criticism by others even when such criticism is not expressed at the time than does the individual working alone.
  2. Group participation may reduce the number of different ideas produced. They may opt to follow and generate sub-branches to the previously stated options.
The authors conducted a very well done experiment. As far as I see, they had tried to answer all possible questions that may popped up. For example, they didn’t just state that the nominal groups were superior to real groups due to the bigger values of produced responses’ means; they continued analyzing that big values to find out whether or not it stemmed from the structure of the groups. Therefore, I can say that the study is pretty unbiased. And they strongly provided evidence that the group interactions (real groups) couldn’t produce responses big in numbers and quality than nominal groups for each problems. Consequently, we can say that this study demonstrates the advantages and merits of the nominal group technique over group interaction in brainstorming.


  1. This is an interesting article. Your summary is also clear and easy to follow and the evidence does indeed present a solid case. My only issue with the literature is that the questions/problems posed by the researchers were too easy. I infer that if the questions were more complex, the result of the study would be different. What do you think?

    1. The toughness level of a question is pretty relative. For example, a national security question can be deemed very hard for a mathematician; whereas it is easier for a DIA analyst. So, in this study the experimenters chose questions which were appropriate for Yale students to make them produce more options. As you may appreciate the more data (i,e option) you have the more solid results you may come up with. That's why I don't think that the study would be more discriminatory if the problems were harder.

  2. Your article shows similar findings as Shadya’s article, which implies that a structured brainstorming session is far more effective than a regular or “free flowing” brainstorming session.

    Shadya, I personally do not think that the complexity of the question played a major role on the results because of the two findings mentioned in the article, and the literate provided on this blog confirming the difference of ideas generated between brainstorming techniques. The only situation where the issue may arise is if the group contains a mix of experts and non-experts and the questions asked are technical in nature (e.g. physics or mathematics) where education, training and experience play a role.

  3. Interesting. I understand how you came to that conclusion. Despite the evidence provided, I believe that technical or complex problems would need more than one person (due to varied expertise) to generate creative ideas.

  4. Since we are on the topic of questions, which kind(s) of questions can brainstorming use best? In other terms, are there certain questions that can inspire creativity of thought more than others since that is the goal of brainstorming?