Decoding Creativity Pt 2: Lessons from Pigeons and Humans

Decoding Creativity Pt 2: Lessons from Pigeons and Humans

August 24, 2023

In the 1970s, a group of researchers became frustrated with the over-glamorization of chimpanzees' "intelligence" by the scientific community. They believed that instead of exploring simpler explanations, the community mistakenly attributed basic behavioral accomplishments of chimpanzees to higher-order human cognitive abilities. To challenge this notion, they decided to repeat the same studies conducted on chimpanzees, but this time with pigeons. It is with these studies that ATB Ventures began our exploration of the interplay of creativity with nature versus nurture.

As mentioned in part 1 of Decoding Creativity, creativity remains a largely elusive concept even to the scientific community. Numerous creativity theories have been proposed, including the now-disproven "left versus right" side of the brain theory. Furthermore, there are constant debates about the nature of creativity. For instance, Einstein believed that creativity transcended objective and scientific understanding, as well as our ability to engineer it.

The absence of consensus in defining creativity is not surprising. Many scientific subjects initially appear inexplicable, and over time, we develop explanations that make sense based on our current knowledge. For example, ancient Greeks attributed the movement of the sun across the sky to Helios. It is important to acknowledge that our understanding of creativity is still evolving, and although recent studies suggest it may be orderly and predictable, these findings are subject to future challenges.

That being said, we also recognized the importance of finding a system of thinking surrounding creativity that both aligned with our team’s values of "human-obsessed, creatively led, and future-oriented" and that made creativity understandable. We leveraged studies to ignite a structured discussion rather than presenting unchallengeable facts. That focus took us to pigeons, a banana, and a box.

Pigeons: Nurturing Creativity

It may have all started as a mechanism of political commentary, but Dr. Robert Epstein and his colleagues' work with pigeons kickstarted a withstanding space of research which became the foundation for understanding novel and complex behaviors in animals and humans. Epsteins' approach was this: provide pigeons human-like training and then place them in a new situation like a child might face. If the pigeons exhibited behavior similar to how a person might respond, it suggested that comparable performances in humans and chimpanzees could be attributed to training rather than cognitive abilities.

One notable study in this space involved the "Banana and Box" problem. Previous research had shown that apes could move a chair to reach a banana hanging out of reach, an achievement attributed to "insight". However, Epstein and his colleagues found that pigeons, with proper training, not only also solved the problem but also exhibited consistently new and sometimes dramatically different approaches. Further studies on pigeon behaviour revealed numerous instances of human-like behavior in the birds, such as problem-solving, cooperation, competition, and even "moral" behavior. These findings laid the groundwork for understanding the dynamics of competition and the combination of thoughts that lead to the emergence of novel performances.

Humans: Predictable Creativity

Inspired by their work with pigeons, Epstein and his team delved into problem-solving experiments involving humans. In one study, participants were tasked with connecting two long strings hanging from the ceiling using any items in the room. After conducting the experiment numerous times, typical behaviors emerged, including:

  1. Pulling one string towards the other and realizing they were out of reach

  2. Attempting to pull the other string to the original one, and recognizing its insufficiency

  3. Repeating these attempts, although less frequently over time

  4. Exploring the room, and spotting a long stick

  5. Using it to extend their reach, which ultimately failed

  6. Eventually, tying one of the strings to the stick, often continuing to try extending their reach, but realizing it is still too far

  7. Dropping the stick only to realize the stick's connection made the string sway—a eureka moment

  8. Swinging the item to the other string. With the strings now close enough, participants would tie them together successfully.

This "aha" moment in the experiment, termed "automatic chaining" by the researchers, illustrates how decisions made in one moment can impact future behaviors and choices. Similar patterns of behavior can be observed in everyday life. For example, when you walk to the kitchen for water and see cookies on the counter, you are more likely to have a cookie than you were a few minutes before. Tying the string to the stick increases the probability of realizing it helps the string swing, making swinging and catching the stick more likely.

Understanding Order and Predictability

Researchers continued to present participants with similar problems to observe their responses, videotaping their behaviors and tracking their decision-making over time. By aggregating all participant data, they were able to create frequency profiles of different behaviors over time. Using the previous study as an example, the frequency profile would show a steady decrease in the probability of pulling one string to the other, while other behaviors increased in probability in an orderly sequence. For instance, tying an object to the string made swinging more likely, which, in turn, increased the likelihood of connecting the strings.

To further explore human behavior, researchers used their generativity model to program a computer that simulated the same experiences. Surprisingly, the computer-generated model often mirrored human behavior, contradicting the common belief that all decisions are novel and independent. Instead, these findings suggested that novel problem-solving performances, which we often consider "creative," are orderly and predictable.

Theory of Generativity

These experiments led Dr. Epstein and his team to develop the Theory of Generativity, which posits that various cognitive processes operate simultaneously and continuously, influencing the probabilities of different behaviors. Novel behavior emerges as a result of these dynamic processes. Contrary to the belief that creativity is rare, generativity research indicates that everyone has the capacity for creativity. We all can create something new and appropriate to the task at hand, and by utilizing generativity theory, we can foster conditions that increase the likelihood of creative output.

Practicing Creativity: The Four Behavioral Traits

Dr. Epstein proposed four behavioral traits that individuals can practice to enhance the competition and combination of thoughts, facilitating the emergence of novel behavior. These traits include capturing, challenging, broadening, and surrounding. In the upcoming series, we will delve into these four approaches to practicing creativity, accompanied by supporting research and techniques.

Through studying the behaviors of pigeons and humans, researchers have gained valuable insights into the complex nature of creativity. By understanding the interplay between nature and nurture, and embracing a systematic approach, we can unlock our own creative potential. The Theory of Generativity provides a framework for enhancing creative output by practicing specific behavioral traits. So, let's take inspiration from the creative abilities of pigeons and embark on our own creative journeys, confident in the knowledge that creativity is within our reach. If a pigeon can do it, so can I.

Miranda Mantey