Seo, S. Kim, Y., and Lee, S., “Every cloud has a silver lining: The positive effect of fearful attachment state on creative idea generation” (2020). The American Journal of Psychology, Vol. 133, No. 2, 181-196.
Background & Theory:
Previous research has indicated that supportive work atmospheres promote creativity. Not surprisingly, similar research has found that threatening situations like harsh performance evaluations and workplace conflict do not promote creativity. However, recent research and theoretical lenses suggest that such a framework for studying creativity is more nuanced. This study draws upon state-based attachment perception theory and gain/loss framing to suggest that people respond to unfavorable tasks differently based on their individual characteristics.
In short, state-based attachment perspective theory operates out of the framework that people adopt temporary attachment states based on interaction experiences in different relationships. There are two primary states that state-based attachment perspective theory functions out of in any given situation: a secure attachment state and a fearful attachment state. People in a secure attachment state have positive views of themselves and others, do not fear rejection in relationships, and feel comfortable balancing their independence and engaging in close relationships. Those in fearful attachment states have negative perceptions of themselves and others, desire the intimacy of relationships but fear closeness, and are therefore more comfortable pursuing independence.
The purpose of this study is to investigate if people in temporary fearful attachment states are able to generate creative ideas when presented with a loss frame.
Research was conducted to answer the following question:
- Do those operating out of a fearful attachment state generate more creative ideas within a loss-framed condition than those operating out of a secure attachment state?
To understand this study’s methodology, it is important to clarify and define its use of gain/loss framing. When presented with the same situation, people often make very different decisions based on whether the situation is framed in terms of gain or loss. Past research has found that people have a stronger motivation to avoid losses than to accumulate gains. For example, losing money leads to a greater level of displeasure that overshadows the level of pleasure when gaining the same amount money. This suggests that people are more motivated to avoid a loss than accumulate a gain of equal value. This study employs gain/loss framing in order to create a threatening task context. Specifically, this study uses a poor performance evaluation as the loss frame.
A pilot study with 148 participants recruited from Amazon Mechanical Turk was used to test whether it was possible to induce any attachment state on full-time working adults. An attachment priming method was used whereby participants read prompts meant to stimulate thinking that would induce a fearful or secure attachment state. One-third of the participants were allocated to each attachment state group, including a control group. Using the Experience in Close Relationship Scale-Short Form, this study resulted in attachment priming being successful on full-time working adults.
The primary experiment consisted of 108 participants recruited from Amazon Mechanical Turk and used the same attachment priming method as in the pilot study. This study additionally incorporated a gain/loss frame where participants were asked to imagine a situation pertaining to either a loss frame or gain frame. After reading, participants were asked to come up with creative ideas related to the prompt. Two independent coders were hired to rate the creativity levels of participant ideas, and were blind to the hypothesis and experimental conditions. To analyze the data, a 2×2 ANOVA on the creative generation was implemented.
After analyzing the data, it was found that under the loss frame, participants who were grouped experiencing the fearful attachment state with respect to their personal relationships, produced a higher level of creative ideas than those in the secure attachment state. As expected this was not found to be true under the gain frame condition.
The study suggests that a loss frame can mitigate the consequences of fearful attachment. While the fearful attachment state is commonly thought of as only harboring negative effects, this study shows a positive effect: the boost of creativity under threatening task contexts.
What We Can Learn:
Looking over this research, we can take away this key insight:
- Creative performance varies under identical tasks based on attachment-state characteristics. Although those that operate from a secure attachment state are often considered to have a general creative advantage, when presented with a potential that one may lose something, those in the fearful attachment state have a greater creative advantage. This study suggests that while being mindful of the ethical considerations of inducing fearful attachment, people can use loss framing in contexts that awaken the fear attachment state to spur creativity.
For Consultants: Using a loss frame to strategically intervene with people inhabiting a fearful attachment state could help stimulate creative solutions to conflict. For example, a consultant could emphasize what employees might lose by not healthily dealing with conflict, which could stimulate creative solutions for proactive conflict resolution among those inhabiting a fearful attachment state.
For Everyone: If you are looking for more creative outcomes at work, establishing environments that fully motivate creativity via attachment and framing may be helpful.