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Ambivalent emotional states: the underlying source of all creativity?

Researchers have uncovered a diversity of practices and policies that foster creativity (Shalley, Zhou, & Oldham, 2004). For example, when individuals widen their eyes (Friedman, Fishbach, Forster, & Werth, 2003), imagine romantic episodes (Forster, Epstude, & Ozelsel, 2009), or articulate their aspirations (Friedman & Forster, 2001), their creativity improves significantly.

Scholars have invoked and delineated a diversity of theories to explain these findings, such as attentional tuning (Friedman & Forster, 2010). The aim of this paper is to demonstrate that many, if not all, these competing theories of creativity can be unified into a single proposition: namely, that conditions, exercises, or characteristics that foster ambivalent emotional states tend to enhance creativity.

In particular, this paper first briefly reviews the studies that have investigated the effect of mood and emotion on creativity. Second, this paper analyzes the established antecedents of creativity, exploring the proposal that many of these determinants can be divided into six constellations, each corresponding to an overlapping suite of theories. Third, this paper explores the possibility that all six constellations of antecedents are likely to elicit ambivalent emotional states. Fourth, this paper reviews the models that explain the beneficial role of ambivalent emotional states during creative pursuits and then uncovers the implications of these accounts.


The Benefits And Limitations of Positive Emotions

Since the seminal work of Alice Isen in the 1980s and Barbara Fredrickson in subsequent decades (Fredrickson & Branigan, 2005), researchers have recognized the benefits of positive emotions during creative tasks. When people experience positive emotions, such as happiness, they tend to solve problems more creatively (e.g., Isen, Rosenzweig, & Young, 1991). Positive feelings that coincide with an elevated level of arousal or excitement, such as vitality (Cohen-Meitar, Carmeli, & Waldman, 2009), are especially likely to enhance creativity.

Yet, during the 2000s, researchers began to show that negative emotions are also integral to creative pursuits, especially in the workplace. For example, when employees feel that creativity will be rewarded (George & Zhou, 2002), tasks are designated as serious rather than fun (Friedman, Forster, & Denzler, 2007), and levels of arousal are low (Hutton & Shyam, 2010), negative emotions tend to improve creativity. Conceivably, negative emotions may expedite some of the processes that underpin creativity, whereas positive emotions may expedite other processes.

For example, according to both Davis (2009) and De Dreu, Baas, and Nijstad (2008), when individuals experience positive emotions only, they contemplate a diversity of possibilities and often propose solutions that diverge from established practices. Their suggestions may be novel and original. In contrast, when individuals experience negative emotions, they attempt to refine and to improve these suggestions. Their solutions, therefore, are more likely to accommodate other constraints or demands and will be perceived as appropriate or useful. Given that definitions of creativity invariably allude to both originality and utility (e.g., Amabile, 1996; Mayer, 1999), both positive and negative emotions are vital to the creative process (for an extension, see George & Zhou, 2007).

The Benefits of Ambivalent Emotional States

These models, however, tended to assume that positive and negative emotions are experienced sequentially rather than simultaneously. Yet, many theories (e.g., Cacioppa & Bernston, 1994), neurobiological studies (Cacioppo, Berntson, Larsen, Poehlmann, & Ito, 2000), and self-report measures (Carrera & Oceja, 2007) demonstrate that positive and negative emotions can be experienced concurrently, called ambivalent emotional states (Fong, 2006), mixed emotions (Aaker, Drolet, & Griffin, 2008), or affective synchrony (Rafaeli, Rogers, & Revelle, 2007). For example, in a study that was conducted by Carrera and Oceja (2007), participants reported feeling happiness and sadness concurrently while watching a bittersweet movie.

In a seminal pair of studies, Fong (2006) showed that positive and negative emotions that are experienced simultaneously enhance creativity. To illustrate, in one of these studies, some participants were instructed to reminisce about a previous event that evoked ambivalent emotional states, such as their graduation. Other participants were instructed to reminisce about a previous event that evoked either positive emotions or negative emotions, but not both. Next, these individuals completed a purported measure of creativity: the Remote Associates Task (Mednick, 1962). On each trial, three words appeared on a screen, such as envy, golf, and beans. Participants attempted to identify a word, in this instance green, that is related to all three terms. Ambivalent emotional states, relative to positive emotions or negative emotions in isolation, enhanced performance on this task.

Likewise, activities that orient individuals to both pleasant and unpleasant features, and thus elicit ambivalent emotional states (Larsen, McGraw, Cacioppo, & Mellers, 2004), improve creativity. In one study, conducted by Oettingen, Marquardt, and Gollwitzer (2012), some participants were instructed to envisage the benefits they may enjoy after they complete a task effectively. Other participants were instructed to consider the obstacles that could impede this success. In contrast to participants who contemplated either the benefits or the obstacles, participants who contemplated both the benefits and the obstacles were more likely perform effectively on a creative task, provided they were confident. Presumably, participants who contemplated both the benefits and the obstacles were more likely to experience a blend of positive and negative emotions.

Similarly, in another study, provided they were happy rather than depressed, individuals wrote more creative captions to photographs after watching disturbing, rather than amusing, film clips (Forgeard, 2011). Individuals who felt happy, but were then exposed to disturbing images, may have experienced ambivalent emotional states, enhancing their creativity.


Previous research has uncovered hundreds of antecedents to creativity besides emotions (for reviews of personality traits, see Martinsen, 2011; for reviews of workplace conditions, see Shalley et al., 2004). Conceivably, however, these antecedents may foster creativity partly, of even primarily, because they evoke ambivalent emotional states. To evaluate this possibility, several activities were undertaken.

To uncover all the established antecedents to creativity, a comprehensive review of previous studies was conducted. In particular, the database PsychINFO was utilized to access the relevant studies. First, all empirical studies in which creativity was the keyword and the participants were adults were uncovered. Second, studies that examined creativity in a specific domain only, such as music or painting, were deleted from this catalogue. Third, studies were retained only if the measures of creativity gauged both individual originality and individual utility (cf., Shalley et al., 2004). Finally, the determinants of creativity were extracted from these studies; overlapping determinants of creativity were assimilated to generate 77 broader antecedents of creativity.

Next one researcher sorted these 77 antecedents of creativity into six themes. This researcher then defined the key feature of these themes. After reading these definitions, another researcher independently distributed the 77 antecedents into these themes. Approximately 92% of these choices aligned to the decision of the first researcher. All discrepancies were discussed, and the definition of each theme was updated accordingly. As the remainder of this section demonstrates, each constellation of antecedents is underpinned by an established theoretical framework and has been shown to foster ambivalent emotional states.

Reconciling Conflicting Thoughts

The first set of antecedents revolves around conditions, practices, and attributes that enable and motivate people to integrate diverse, or even conflicting, thoughts. Indeed, many theories and practices in the realm of creativity--such as honing theory (Gabora & Kaufman, 2010), conceptual blending (Turner & Fauconnier, 2002), dialectical thinking (Yang, Wan, & Chiou, 2010), integrative complexity (Suedfeld & Hagen, 1966) and androgyny (Stoltzfus, Nibbelink, Vredenburg, & Thyrum, 2011)--underscore the benefits of withstanding, and then reconciling, conflicting beliefs, attitudes, and perspectives.

This set of antecedents can be divided into four subthemes. First, some antecedents of creativity--such as living in another country (Maddux, Adam, & Galinsky, 2010), learning several languages (Lee & Kim, 2011), forming diverse social networks (Baer, 2010), or reading an assortment of narratives or fiction (Kelly & Kneipp, 2009)--increase the likelihood that people will be exposed to diverse perspectives. These experiences are likely to prime a variety of thoughts and perspectives.

Second, other antecedents of creativity increase the probability that individuals will be exposed to conflicting, rather than merely diverse, fragments of information. Observations of sarcasm--in which someone expresses encouraging words but with disparaging intent (Miron-Spektor, Efrat-Treister, Rafaeli, & Schwarz-Cohen, 2011) --and exposure to other paradoxes (Miron-Spektor, Gino, & Argote, 2011), have been shown to improve creativity.

Third, some antecedents to creativity enhance the capacity of individuals to embrace these conflicting perspectives. Examples include a tolerance for ambiguity (Zenasni, Besancon, & Lubart, 2008) as well as a slender corpus callosum--an attribute that enables the two hemispheres to process information in parallel and thus maintain distinct perspectives (Moore, Bhadelia, Billings, Fulwiler, Heilman, Rood, & Gansler, 2009).

Fourth, other antecedents of creativity enhance the capacity of individuals to integrate these conflicting perspectives. Reflective rumination (Cohen & Ferrari, 2010) and cognitive ability (Valacich, Jung & Looney, 2006) epitomize this subtheme of antecedents.

Yet, exposure to diverse perspectives, such as multicultural environments, does not always translate to creativity. When individuals seek firm answers and shun ambiguity, these experiences are not as beneficial (see Leung & Chiu, 2010). Presumably, if people shun conflicting beliefs and attitudes, these experiences will not enhance creativity.

This capacity of individuals to withstand, and then to reconcile, conflicting thoughts is likely to foster ambivalent emotional states. To demonstrate, ambivalent emotional states evoke a sense of dissonance or unease (cf., Cooper & Fazio, 1984), because positive emotions reinforce specific behaviors, whereas negative emotions deter these behaviors (Prinz, 2010). To override this dissonance, individuals attempt to shift their memory, attention, or appraisals to amplify either positive emotions or negative emotions, but not both (cf., Aaker et al., 2008). Ambivalent emotional states, therefore, are fleeting.

Some people, however, can withstand, and ultimately integrate, conflicting thoughts (Cialdini, Trost, & Newsom, 1995). These individuals, therefore, may not suppress the negative implications of some event and may instead experience enduring states of positive and negative emotions. Consistent with this possibility, as Hui, Fok, and Bond (2009) showed, people who embrace contradictory beliefs, called dialectical thinking, are indeed more likely to experience a blend of positive and negative emotions. In short, this capacity to withstand and to reconcile conflicting thoughts not only improves creativity but also promotes ambivalent emotional states.

An Abstract Construal

The second set of antecedents relates to the conditions, practices, or attributes that elicit an abstract construal--the tendency of people to orient their attention to overarching patterns or intangible concepts (Liberman, Trope, & Stephan, 2007). To illustrate, when people who adopt an abstract construal observe the night sky, they may discern a pattern amongst the stars rather than focus their attention on a specific star. If they see a dog, they might describe this animal as a mammal--a broad classification--instead of a German Shepherd.

According to attentional tuning theory, an abstract construal generally enhances creativity (Friedman & Forster, 2010). At least, an abstract construal should facilitate the generation of possible or provisional solutions. Specifically, an abstract construal provides two benefits. First, when individuals adopt an abstract construal, and therefore contemplate broad concepts (Fujita & Han, 2009), a diversity of exemplars are partly activated (Friedman & Forster, 2010). To illustrate, suppose that individuals are instructed to identify many uses of some object, such as a brick. If a concrete construal of this brick is evoked, individuals are likely to contemplate a specific brick of a particular size, color, and shape. If an abstract construal is evoked, individuals will contemplate a generic object that vaguely resembles a brick. They may, therefore, uncover solutions that are applicable to massive, tiny, hollow, or gold bricks, for example, and thus generate an extensive variety of possible suggestions.

Second, when individuals adopt an abstract construal, and are therefore sensitive to overarching patterns (Forster et al., 2009), they might recognize a similarity or association between two distinct objects or events. They might, for example, realize that heat can alleviate both a blocked nose and a tight jar lid. Because of these realizations, solutions they apply to one problem, such as a blocked nose, may be applicable to other problems as well.

Construal level theory delineates the conditions and contexts that evoke an abstract construal (for a summary, see Trope, Liberman, & Wakslak, 2007). The core premise of this theory is that objects or events that are close or urgent evoke a concrete construal--an orientation to tangible features and specific details. Objects or events that are remote instead evoke an abstract construal.

This second set of antecedents is likely to elicit an abstract construal because they prime thoughts about remote objects or events. For example, remote locations, such as environments that remind people of nature, promote both creativity (McCoy & Evans, 2002) and evoke an abstract construal (Fujita, Henderson, Eng, Trope, & Liberman, 2005). Likewise, reflections about the remote past or future also foster creativity (Chiu, 2012; Forster et al., 2009) as well as an abstract construal (Trope & Liberman, 2003). In addition, when people contemplate a problem from the perspective of someone else, their creativity improves (Polman & Emich, 2011) and an abstract construal is evoked (Eyal, Liberman, & Trope, 2008). Finally, obstacles or impediments to some goal also elicit an abstract construal (Marguc, Forster, & Van Kleef, 2011) and have been shown to enhance creativity (Pike, 2002).

Proponents of attentional tuning theory, however, do not assume that an abstract construal alone fosters creativity. A concrete construal, for example, enables individuals to apply rules more effectively and thus judge whether or not a series of solutions fulfill specific constraints or objectives (Friedman & Forster, 2001, 2010). Thus, both an abstract construal and a concrete construal are beneficial to various facets of creative pursuits. Despite this caveat, conditions that foster an abstract construal are more likely to enhance overall creativity than conditions that foster a concrete construal (e.g., Forster et al., 2009).

An abstract construal is more likely than a concrete construal to foster creativity as well as promote ambivalent emotional states. For example, as Hong and Lee (2010) showed, if people adopt an abstract construal they are more receptive to messages that foster both positive and negative emotions; that is, these individuals can withstand the dissonance that ambivalent emotional states can evoke.

Presumably, once people adopt an abstract construal, they can integrate or reconcile contradictory emotions, as Henderson (2010) demonstrated. They can impute these conflicting experiences to a broad, overarching explanation, diminishing the dissonance that ambivalent emotional states can evoke.

Psychological Safety

The third set of antecedents includes conditions, practices, or characteristics that foster a sense of psychological safety. As many scholars assume, to uncover creative solutions, individuals need to feel secure and safe (e.g., Rogers, 1961; for a discussion of the underling mechanisms, see Gong, Cheung, Wang, & Huang, 2012). Rather than depend on established practices or observe entrenched traditions, creative individuals need to explore foreign locations or consider unfamiliar concepts, each of which may provoke unexpected complications. As attachment theory underscores, when people feel they can retreat to a safe haven whenever these problems escalate, they are more inclined to brave this uncertainty and embrace the unknown (Mikulincer, Shaver, & Rom, 2011). Indeed, after individuals are exposed to the names of supportive friends or family, their performance on the Remote Associates Task improves (Mikulincer et al., 2011).

This set of antecedents can be divided into three subthemes. The first subtheme comprises antecedents of creativity that foster trust; friends, colleagues, or authorities who are perceived as caring and supportive, rather than competitive and unsupportive. Memories of security (Mikulincer et al., 2011), exposure to benevolent leaders (Lim & Choi, 2009), employment in supportive organizations (Khazanchi, & Masterson, 2011), and physical separation from competitors (Shalley & Oldham 1997) have all been shown to improve creativity.

The second subtheme comprises antecedents that instill the belief that procedures are fair and the duties of employees are unambiguous. Consequently, these employees will not feel they may be penalized unexpectedly, inducing a sense of security rather than agitation (Higgins, 1987, Scott & Hara, 1993). In particular, procedural justice (Simmons, 2011), unequivocal demands and instructions (Sagiv, Arieli, Goldenberg, & Goldschmidt, 2010), as well as a feeling of certainty (Binyamin & Carmel, 2010) have been demonstrated to enhance creativity.

The third subtheme revolves around job security. That is, if employees feel their position in the organization is impervious to changes in the workplace, industry, or economy, they also feel safer and more secure (Baillien & De Witte, 2009). This job security has also been shown to be positively associated with creativity (Probst, Stewart, Gruys, & Tierney, 2007).

At first glance, the observation that psychological safety promotes creativity seems to diverge from the proposition that ambivalent emotional states enhance the originality and utility of solutions. That is, when individuals can retreat to a safe haven, their negative emotions tend to dissipate rapidly (Mikulincer, Shaver, & Pereg, 2003), evoking positive emotions rather than ambivalent states.

However, when individuals experience this safety and security, they are also more likely to embrace ambivalent emotional states. To illustrate, according to socio-emotional selectivity theory (Carstensen, 1995), when people feel their identity is secure rather than vulnerable, they become especially motivated to accrue resources, such as knowledge and skills, that could be utilized to achieve their future goals. These individuals become more inclined to withstand unpleasant emotions now to accumulate resources that could be beneficial later. Consistent with this premise, as Brown, Asher, and Cialdini (2005) demonstrated, when individuals are primarily motivated to enhance their immediate emotions--or experience safety, security, and other positive states--they cannot withstand dissonance as well. They are, therefore, not as willing to embrace the conflicting tendencies that ambivalent emotional states may evoke.

To reiterate, a variety of antecedents to creativity foster psychological safety. This sense of safety inspires people to accumulate resources, increasing their capacity to withstand dissonance and thus embrace ambivalent emotional states.

Deviation from Social Norms

The fourth set of antecedents is related to the conditions, practices, or attributes that inspire people to deviate from the norms of their society. That is, in particular circumstances, some individuals do not feel especially motivated to conform or comply with the customary practices, explicit demands, or social constraints of their environment. They become more inclined to enact behaviors that diverge from these traditions, manifesting as creativity (Forster, Friedman, Butterbach, & Sassenberg, 2005). As evidence of this premise, characteristics that epitomize this inclination to deviate from societal norms, such as individualism (Kim, Lee, & Lee, 2012) and a need to be unique (Dollinger, 2003), foster creativity.

Indeed, this willingness to contravene, rather than observe, social constraints is central to many theories of creativity. For example, according to cognitive evaluation theory, when individuals are granted scope to reach decisions at work, they feel empowered to pursue their own goals, interests, and passions, called an intrinsic motivation (Deci & Ryan, 1985). In this state, they do not feel constrained by the directions and expectations of other people, such as a manager. Because they feel unfettered by these constraints, they are willing to contemplate a more diverse array of possible alternatives, facilitating creativity (Shalley et al., 2004). Consistent with this argument, a range of measures (Prabhu, Sutton, & Sauser, 2008) and determinants of intrinsic motivation--such as a broad job scope (Coelho & Augusto, 2010) and feelings of autonomy that are accompanied by support (Zhou, 2003) rather than excessive surveillance (de Vet & De Dreu, 2007)--have been demonstrated to promote creativity.

In addition to this autonomy, other features of the environment can also foster this willingness in people to abandon social constraints. According to Forster et al. (2005), some cues, including pictures of punks (Pendry & Carrick, 2001), coincide with the inclination of people to deviate from social norms. Exposure to these cues inspires individuals to deviate from social norms, enhancing creativity (Forster et al., 2005; see also Fitzsimons et al., 2008) while precluding conformity (Pendry & Carrick, 2001). Furthermore, characteristics that promote this deviance, such as facet of schizotypy called impulsive nonconformity, are also positively related to creativity (Batey & Furnham, 2008).

Finally, in some organizations, individuals are explicitly instructed to transcend the existing practices, customs, and norms of the workplace. Employees, for example, may be encouraged to refine these practices and to develop their knowledge, skills, and competence, called a learning goal (e.g., Brown & Latham, 2002). When individuals pursue these learning goals, their primary motivation is to refine their capabilities and strategies rather than achieve some outcome or standard (e.g., Dweck, 1986). To fulfill these goals, individuals often embrace possibilities that deviate from existing practices and standards, manifesting as creativity. Consistent with this premise, in general, an orientation towards learning and growth, epitomized by openness to feedback (De Stobbeleir et al., 2011), has been shown to foster creativity (Janssen & Van Yperen, 2004; Shalley, Gilson, & Blum, 2009). Even cues that prime the motivation to grow, such as green objects (Lichtenfeld, Elliot, Maier, & Pekrun, 2012), enhance creativity.

Nevertheless, deviations from social norms, if too pronounced, are unlikely to foster creativity. Obviously, if individuals dismiss social norms entirely, their solutions are unlikely to be perceived as useful or appropriate (Grant & Berry, 2011). However, if these individuals are still moderately sensitive to the social norms of their community, their solutions are more likely to be embraced. Consistent with this possibility, when individuals do not care about their community at all, intrinsic motivation is not associated with the utility of their solutions (Grant & Berry, 2011).

In short, many antecedents to creativity, such as intrinsic motivation and cues that prime deviance, prompt individuals to enact behaviors that fulfill personal needs but may deviate moderately from social duties. As Fong and Tiedens (2002) showed, whenever individuals assume roles that fulfill personal needs but contravene social expectations, they are more likely to report ambivalent emotional states.

Simsek and Yalincetin (2010), coupled with self-discrepancy theory (Higgins, 1987), offer some insight into why this deviation from social duties may evoke ambivalent emotional states. Specifically, people sometimes feel the need to be unique or distinct (Simsek & Yalincetin, 2010). After they deviate from social norms, such as arrive to work with unusual attire, this need is fulfilled, and positive emotions are evoked (cf., Higgins, 1987). Consistent with this possibility, if people feel unique, they are more likely to experience hope and satisfaction (Simsek & Yalincetin, 2010). Nevertheless, these deviations can also provoke negative emotions, such as anxiety and agitation, as individuals anticipate exclusion or punishment (Higgins, 1987). Behaviors that deviate from social norms, therefore, should evoke a blend of positive and negative emotions.

Quantity over Quality

The fifth set of antecedents revolves around conditions that inspire people to emphasize quantity over quality. In his seminal work on brainstorming, Alex Osborn proposed that an initial emphasis on quantity, instead of quality, should ultimately facilitate creativity. Specifically, according to Osborn (1953), to solve problems, individuals should first uncover a multitude of provisional solutions and suspend their inclination to evaluate these possibilities. After an array of possibilities has been uncovered, individuals can then identify, refine, and integrate the solutions that could be most useful. Although researchers do not always concur on which settings optimize brainstorming (see Brown & Paulus, 1996), the key premise that an initial emphasis on quantity, instead of quality, will ultimately facilitate creativity has been verified extensively (e.g., Munoz Adanez, 2005; Paulus, Kohn, & Arditti, 2011).

Markman, Lindberg, Kray, and Galinsky (2007) corroborated a similar premise in another context, outside the realm of brainstorming. In this study, after some failure or disappointment, some participants were asked to consider possible courses of action they had overlooked, increasing the number of alternatives they could apply in the future. Other participants were asked to consider past behaviors they should have avoided, diminishing the number of alternatives that individuals could apply in the future. After individuals identified more, rather than fewer, courses of action, called an additive counterfactual, their creativity on subsequent activities tended to improve. Therefore, an exercise that increased the quantity, instead of the quality, of solutions tended to enhance creativity on another task.

As this study implies, the emphasis on quantity must evoke a state or mindset that generalizes to other activities (see Eysenck, 1993, for the physiological processes that may underpin this state). Specifically, when people need to evaluate their suggestions --when they need to decide whether their solutions conform to some rule or constraint --they deliberate carefully, logically, and rationally (Norris & Epstein, 2011). In contrast, when people do not need to evaluate suggestions, they become more inclined to depend on intuitive judgments, experienced as hunches that evolve over time (Norris & Epstein, 2011). This reliance on intuition has been shown to enhance the originality of solutions (Dijksterhuis & Meurs, 2006) and improve creativity (Norris & Epstein, 2011). In particular, when intuition is invoked, the solutions of individuals tend to diverge from established patterns (Dijksterhuis & Meurs, 2006).

This role of intuition could explain other antecedents to creativity. To illustrate, when muscles in the left hand are contracted, and hence the right hemisphere is activated, creativity tends to improve (Goldstein, Revivo, Kreitler, & Metuki, 2010). This finding can be ascribed to the observation that intuition is primarily underpinned by the right rather than left hemisphere of the cortex (Bowden & Jung-Beeman, 2003).

Despite the benefits of brainstorming, when individuals are asked to emphasize quantity instead of precision, they may propose a host of inane possibilities. They may then feel overwhelmed by these frivolous solutions. Yet, in practice, this problem seldom if ever transpires. Individuals do not propose a series of absurd ideas. Instead, their solutions tend to be useful and creative (Munoz Adanez, 2005).

The mechanism that translates this emphasis on quantity to utility has not been identified definitely. Arguably, this emphasis on quantity, rather than quality, may evoke ambivalent emotional states.

Mindset theory, promulgated by Gollwitzer (1990), can explain how an emphasis on quantity, rather than quality, induces ambivalent emotional states. According to this theory, to reach a decision, people complete two phases. First, they deliberate over the choices, attempting to accumulate information about each alternative (Gollwitzer & Bayer, 1999). Second, after they evaluate and choose one of these alternatives, they implement one of these choices (Gollwitzer, Fujita, & Oettingen, 2004).

During this second phase, called implementation, individuals demonstrate a bias, called spreading of alternatives. In particular, people tend to orient their attention to only the benefits, and not the drawbacks, of the chosen alternative (Harmon-Jones & Harmon-Jones, 2002). Therefore, after individuals reach decisions, they assume their actions will only facilitate, rather than impede, their goals, diminishing the likelihood of ambivalent emotional states.

Consequently, when quantity rather than quality is emphasized, individuals defer their decisions. Spreading of alternatives is inhibited (Harmon-Jones & Harmon-Jones, 2002), and ambivalent emotional states are thus more likely to persist.

Creative Self-efficacy

The final set of antecedents revolves around creative self-efficacy. That is, when people are confident they can uncover a creative solution, called creative self-efficacy (Tierney & Farmer, 2002), they are more likely to persist in this endeavor (cf., Bandura, 1982). They tend to engage vigorously in this creative pursuit, sometimes referred to as creative process engagement (Zhang & Bartol, 2010). Many studies confirm the premise that creative self-efficacy does indeed promote creativity (e.g., Diliello, Houghton, & Dawley, 2011).

This set of antecedents can be divided into four subthemes, each of which seem to align to the four sets of experiences that, according to social-cognitive theory, promote self-efficacy (Bandura, 2001). First, individuals derive self-efficacy from their observations of role models. When they observe peers or leaders choosing to behave creatively, for example, their creative self-efficacy should escalate. Indeed, these role models have been shown to improve creativity (Zhou, 2003).

Second, encouragement from other people, including managers, also enhances selfefficacy and has been shown to improve creativity (Mathisen, 2011). For instance, transformational leaders, who promulgate a rousing vision of the future and then help individuals pursue this direction, also enhance the creative self-efficacy of employees (Gong, Huang, & Farh, 2009) and improve creativity (Cheung & Wong, 2011).

In some instances, this encouragement is inadvertent rather than deliberate. When leaders expect their employees will be creative, they unwittingly offer these individuals more opportunities to express their creativity, called the Pygmalion effect (Tierney & Farmer, 2004). The creative self-efficacy of these employees soars and, hence, their creativity improves, as Tierney and Farmer (2004) confirmed.

Third, positive emotions, rather than anxiety or dejection, also enhance self-efficacy. To illustrate, individuals are more likely to experience positive emotions and attitudes whenever characteristics of the job, such as the precision or clarity of the role, match their preferences (e.g., Verquer, Beehr, & Wagner, 2003). Consistent with this premise, this congruence between the characteristics of jobs and the preferences of employees has been shown to augment creative self-efficacy and improve creativity (Wang, Zhang, & Martocchio, 2011).

Finally, previous success tends to translate into future self-efficacy. To illustrate, some individuals value creative pursuits. They may perceive creativity as central to their identity, called creative identity (Wang & Zhu, 2011), or enjoy challenging problems, called need for cognition (Dollinger, 2003). Because of these values, these individuals have often excelled on creative tasks in the past. This success tends to promote creative self-efficacy and has been shown to improve creativity (Martinsen, 2011).

Self-efficacy is also likely to increase the prevalence of ambivalent emotional states. In particular, according to the biophysical model of challenge and threat, when individuals contemplate a demanding task, they experience one of two states (Blascovich & Tomaka, 1996). First, if they feel they may be unable to complete this task successfully, the concentration of cortisol in their blood escalates, their heart rate increases, and their blood pressure may soar (Tomaka, Blascovich, Kelsey, & Leitten, 1993). They experience a prevailing sense of threat or anxiety. Second, if individuals experience self-efficacy and feel the task is feasible, the concentration of adrenaline, rather than cortisol, in their blood will escalate. Although their heart rate increases, their blood vessels dilate, and their blood pressure remains steady (Tomaka & Palacios-Esquivel, 1997). They experience a feeling challenge instead of threat.

This feeling of challenge entails both negative feelings and positive feelings. Their rapid heart rate corresponds to feelings of agitation (see Cacioppo et al., 2000). Their steady blood pressure, however, corresponds to feelings of contentment (Cacioppo, et al., 2000). This sense of challenge therefore, ubiquitous when people experience self-efficacy, will be experienced as an ambivalent emotional state.

Indeed, as many studies demonstrate, the conditions or characteristics that foster this sense of challenge--that is, demanding goals coupled with provisions that facilitate self-efficacy--promote creativity (e.g., Chamorro-Premuzic & Reichenbacher, 2008). When individuals need to complete tasks within a limited time, but feel a sense of control for example, creativity improves significantly (Binnewies & Wornlein, 2011). Similarly, if employees perceive a merger as an opportunity, instead of a threat, creativity also improves (Zhou, Shin, & Cannella, 2008).


In short, the antecedents of creativity can be divided into six themes. These themes each are likely to evoke ambivalent emotional states. This analysis, coupled with previous research (e.g., Fong, 2006), implies that ambivalent emotional states could underpin many of the practices, conditions, and attributes that have been shown to enhance creativity. This premise, however, is tenuous unless researchers can substantiate the mechanisms that translate ambivalent emotional states to creative solutions. Three mechanisms may underpin the benefits of ambivalent emotional states.

The Informational Theory of Ambivalence

First, Fong (2006) argued that ambivalent emotional states are perceived as unusual. Consequently, when individuals experience these emotions, they assume the surroundings must be unusual as well. Because the surroundings are assumed to be unusual, individuals expect the relationships between objects or events may diverge from expectations (Fong, 2006). In most settings, for example, when one person praises someone, the recipient will show gratitude. In unusual settings, however, a different sequence of events may unfold. The recipient may demonstrate horror, for example.

Accordingly, in these unusual settings, individuals must be receptive to associations between objects or events that are not typically related to one another (Fong, 2006). When people feel ambivalent, cognitive processes that uncover these unexpected associations may be invoked. This sensitivity to unexpected associations should facilitate creativity.

One of the studies reported by Fong (2006) was designed to substantiate this account. In this study, participants first wrote essays that were intended to imply that ambivalent emotional states are either prevalent or unusual. To evoke the assumption that ambivalence is prevalent, some participants wrote pieces that affirm the proverbs "Love hurts" and "Sorrow is born of excessive joy"--both of which epitomize ambivalence. They also wrote pieces that oppose the proverbs "If things don't get better, they will surely get worse" and "Don't worry be happy". In contrast, to evoke the assumption that ambivalence is unusual, participants opposed the first two proverbs and affirmed the other two proverbs.

Next, all participants watched movie clips that elicit happiness, sadness, or ambivalence, before completing the Remote Associates Task. Ambivalent emotional states enhanced performance on the Remote Associates Task, but only if these mixed emotions were perceived as unusual (Fong, 2006).

Nevertheless, alternative accounts could explain this pattern of findings. To illustrate, while participants opposed the proverbs "Love hurts" and "Sorrow is born of excessive joy", they needed to suppress memories and beliefs that vindicate these adages. Suppressed memories and beliefs tend to become more salient over time (e.g., Wegner, 1997). Consequently, these individuals may have experienced more intense ambivalent emotional states than did the other participants.

The Dual Pathway Model to Creativity And the Dual Tuning Model

The dual pathway model to creativity (De Dreu et al., 2008) could also be invoked to explain the benefits of ambivalent emotional states during creative pursuits. According to this model, positive emotions enhance the flexibility of thoughts whereas negative emotions enhance determination, especially if these emotions are high in arousal or activation.

The dual tuning model, posed by George and Zhou (2007), entails the same assumptions with one qualification. According to this model, whenever supervisors are supportive, individuals assume their determination will be valued and recognized. The support of supervisors, therefore, magnifies the association between negative emotions and persistence--a proposition that George and Zhou (2007) demonstrated empirically.

Personality Systems Interaction Theory: Dejection and Contentment

Unlike the dual pathway model to creativity (De Dreu et al., 2008) and the dual tuning model (George & Zhou, 2007), personality systems interaction theory was formulated to characterize the relationships between specific emotions and cognitive processes (Kuhl, 2000). According to personality systems interaction theory, four cognitive systems--extension memory, intention memory, intuitive behavioral control, and object recognition--regulate the decisions and actions of individuals (Kuhl, 2000). In essence, extension memory, activated while people feel content, underpins intuition (see also Hodgkinson, Langan-Fox, & Sadler-Smith, 2008). Intention memory, evoked by dejection, enables individuals to construct and retain plans (Kazen & Kuhl, 2005). Intuitive behavioral control, activated while people feel excited or enthused, executes these plans (Kazen & Kuhl, 2005). Finally, object recognition, induced by anxiety, orients attention to potential threats and motivates individuals to observe social norms, primarily to circumvent these hazards (Kuhl, 2000).

When individuals experience ambivalent emotional states, two cognitive systems are activated, either simultaneously or in close succession. To illustrate, if people experience dejection, intention memory is activated. This intention memory enables individuals to apply logical reasoning, established principles, and sequential operations (Kazen & Kuhl, 2005). These thoughts are devoid of emotional or sensory details and, therefore, enable people to construct and maintain plans that could be applied in a variety of settings in the future to solve problems (Kazen & Kuhl, 2005). Consistent with this premise, dejection has been shown to increase the reliance of individuals on cognitive deliberation rather than intuition (de Vries, Holland, & Witteman, 2009).

However, if this dejection is accompanied by feelings of contentment, extension memory is activated as well (Kuhl, 2000). Two features of extension memory enhance the plans that emanate from intention memory. First, when extension memory is activated, all the previous experiences, acquired inclinations, and personal goals of individuals that are relevant to the immediate context are primed (Kuhl, 2000). Tendencies that are unrelated to one another inhibit each other until a stable amalgam of experiences, inclinations, and goals prevail, experienced as an intuition or hunch (Kuhl, 2000). This intuition then governs the choices and decisions of individuals.

Because this extensive network of experiences, inclinations, and goals are activated simultaneously, content individuals can intuit associations between concepts that are only remotely connected. They may, for example, sense that envy, golf, and beans are all associated with the word green. Consistent with this argument, when individuals feel content, their performance on the Remote Associates Task improves (Bolte, Goschke, & Kuhl, 2003). Consequently, when individuals feel both dejected and content, their plans will comprise features that are unusual in this setting, increasing the originality or novelty of their solutions.

Furthermore, because of this sensitivity to remote connections, when people feel content, and extension memory is activated, individuals recognize associations between their actions now and the wellbeing of other people in the future. Consequently, when content, individuals are especially motivated to assist the community, even if these endeavors are not rewarded financially (Baumann & Kuhl, 2005). Therefore, when individuals feel both dejected and content, their plans are likely to be regarded by the community as valuable instead of misguided. Their solutions will be perceived as useful and appropriate, a key facet of creativity (Amabile, 1996).

Personality Systems Interaction Theory: Other Blends of Emotions

Besides dejection and contentment, other blends of positive and negative emotions may also facilitate creativity. For example, when people experience excitement, intuitive behavioral control is activated. This cognitive system implements the plans that individuals constructed and stored in intention memory (Kuhl, 2000). These emotions, arguably, mobilize the energy that is needed to initiate and to coordinate a complex array of motor programs (Kazen & Kuhl, 2005). Consistent with this possibility, when individuals experience excitement and similar emotions, Stroop interference abates (Kazen & Kuhl, 2005; Kuhl & Kazen, 1999). That is, individuals can readily implement the intention to name the color of items rather than read the words. In creative settings, this system enables people to execute or communicate their solutions to problems effectively.

If this excitement is accompanied by feelings of anxiety or uncertainty, the object recognition system is activated as well. When this system is activated, individuals can more readily observe the prevailing social norms of their immediate environment (Baumann & Kuhl, 2003). This inclination to conform diminishes the likelihood that individuals will violate their social duties, reducing the probability of exclusion or punishment and thus alleviating their anxiety (Higgins, 1987). As evidence of this system, when people feel anxious or uncertain, one of their primary inclinations is to conform (e.g., Smith, Hogg, & Martin, & Terry, 2007).

Consequently, when people experience a blend of excitement and anxiety, and both intuitive behavioral control and object recognition are activated, these individuals implement or communicate their plans more sensitively. They adjust their actions or language to fulfill social norms and preferences. Their solutions, therefore, will be perceived as more original and useful.

In short, ambivalent emotional states tend to prime two or more cognitive systems at the same time. These cognitive systems, consequently, can be coordinated effectively to enhance creativity.

Evaluation of these Theories

Future research is warranted to assess the proposition that many, if not most, of the conditions, practices, and attributes that foster creativity can be ascribed to ambivalent emotional states. Furthermore, research is needed to establish which theories explain this benefit of ambivalent emotional states. In particular, the following propositions should be assessed.

Proposition 1. Ambivalent emotional states should mediate the association between antecedents of creativity and creative performance.

However, individuals tend to underestimate the extent to which they experience mixed feelings in the past. For example, to override the dissonance that mixed feelings can elicit, people often assume they experienced positive, instead of ambivalent, emotional states during some task (Aaker et al., 2008). Consequently, if explicit measures are administered, the role of ambivalent emotional states will tend to be underestimated. Therefore, to assess ambivalent emotional states, researchers may need to administer an implicit measure, such as the IPANAT, in which individuals are asked to indicate the extent to which various brand names evoke a range of emotions (for psychometric evidence, see Quirin, Kazen, Rohrman, & Kuhl, 2009).

Proposition 2. According to the informational theory of ambivalence, but not the other theories, the relationship between ambivalent emotional states and creative performance should depend on the extent to which a specific blend of positive emotions and negative emotions is perceived as unusual.

Furthermore, according to the informational theory of ambivalence, after controlling the degree to which a state is regarded as unusual, creative performance should not depend on which positive emotions and negative emotions are induced. A blend of dejection and contentment, for example, should generate the same level of creativity as a blend of excitement and anxiety, provided these combinations are deemed to be equally unusual.

Proposition 3. According to personality systems interaction theory, the relationship between ambivalent emotional states and creative performance should depend on which positive emotions and negative emotions are induced.

For example, a blend of dejection and contentment should enhance the originality and utility of solutions, but only when these suggestions do not have to be implemented or communicated effectively. In contrast, a blend of excitement and anxiety should improve the capacity of individuals to implement or communicate a solution creatively and effectively.

Proposition 4. According to personality systems interaction theory, ambivalent emotional states should activate distinct cognitive systems or neural regions, such as the right prefrontal regions, associated with intuition (Bowden & Jung-Beeman, 2003), and the left dorsolateral and ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, associated with cognitive deliberation (O'Reilly, 2010).

Proposition 5. According to the informational theory of ambivalence, if individuals ascribe the ambivalent emotional states to sources that are unrelated to the creative task, the benefits of these states should diminish. That is, these individuals will not assume the creative task is embedded in an unconventional environment, diminishing creativity.

Proposition 6. According to the dual pathway model to creativity and personality systems interaction theory, the benefits of the ambivalent emotional states should not depend on the perceived sources of these emotions. That is, according to these models, emotions activate particular cognitive mindsets or tendencies, regardless of the perceived source of these states. The activation of these mindsets is not mediated by cognitive appraisals.


This paper showed that ambivalent emotional states may underpin many, if not most, of the practices, conditions, or attributes that foster creativity. If validated more definitely in the future, this proposition generates many important implications.

First, this proposition implies that a variety of emotions may enhance creativity. Several emotions seem to evoke both positive and negative feelings. Research, for example, reveals that nostalgia is an ambivalent emotion (Wildschut, Sedikides, Arndt, & Routledge, 2006). When individuals reminisce about previous connections, such as past friends or pets, they experience this nostalgia. Thus, nostalgia coincides with feelings of warmth as well as a tinge of loss (Werman, 1977). Future research, therefore, should examine whether or not settings that evoke nostalgia, such as conversations with past friends, do indeed enhance creativity.

Similarly, compassion or care is also an ambivalent emotion. Compassion motivates individuals to assist and to protect other people, such as offspring (Shaver, Morgan, & Wu, 1996). Therefore, when individuals feel compassion, they experience warmth towards another person or animal, but also feel worried, vigilant, and guarded (Hrdy, 1999). Because compassion elicits both warmth and worry, future research should examine whether or not this ambivalent emotion also enhances creativity.

Rather than evoke nostalgia, compassion, or other blends of positive and negative feelings, practitioners may instead attempt to cultivate the conditions that foster ambivalent emotional states. For example, leaders may encourage more debates, perhaps to increase the receptivity of employees to contradictory perspectives (Hui et al., 2009).

Ambivalent emotions may represent another attempt to resolve the paradoxes that epitomize creativity. According to Cropley and Cropextensive domain knowledge can both stifle and foster creativity. Likewise, creativity is associated with contradictory tendencies, such as defiance and acceptance as well as flexibility and focus. The purported benefits of ambivalent emotions may exemplify another paradox--the paradox that both positive and negative feelings are vital to the pursuit of creativity.


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Simon A Moss

Cairnmillar Institute, Australia

Samuel G. Wilson

Swinburne University of Technology, Australia

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Simon Moss, Cairnmillar Institute, 993 Burke Road, Camberwell, 3124, AUSTRALIA. Email:
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Author:Moss, Simon A.; Wilson, Samuel G.
Publication:The International Journal of Creativity and Problem Solving
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2014
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