Experiment in cognition

This experiment was conducted to further the previous research of Smith, Ward, and Schumacher (1993) and Marsh, Landau, and Hicks (1996) on the standard conformity effect. Participants in the experimental group were shown examples of three creatures that shared features converging on the single concept of hostility, while participants were not shown ay examples. Consistent with previous research, the experimental group participants’ novel creations conformed to the examples they were shown even with specific instructions to not copy any aspect of the examples. Additionally, participants in the experimental group used more hostile features when creating novel creatures than the participants in the control group who were not shown examples. These results suggest that outside influences can unintentionally have profound effects on creativity and originality.

Experiment in Cognition

One facet of creativity research explores how memory contributes to the products of creativity (e.g. drawings, inventions, songs, etc.). A standard finding is that people tend to incorporate elements of recently experienced stimuli in creative products. More specifically, Smith, Ward, and Schumacher (1993) and Marsh, Landau, and Hicks (1996) have shown the standard conformity effect – that participants will incorporate shared features from examples into novel drawings more frequently than participants who are not shown any examples

Smith et al. (1993) conducted an experiment to “demonstrate that merely presenting individuals with examples in a creative generation task would bias their creations to contain the shared properties of those examples.” In the experiment, participants were asked to draw as many novel ideas (toys or imaginary creatures) as possible in a specific amount of time. Half of the participants were shown examples prior to the task while the other half were not. The result showed that indeed, “creative designs were constrained when the examples were shown prior to the generation task.”

Marsh et al. (1996) replicated the previous experiment in order to test the presented conclusion that creativity was constrained. If the participants in Smith et al.’s experimental group “designed creatures that possessed a greater number of features than the critical ones as compared with controls, the examples could have arguably facilitated more elaborate designs and hence enhanced creativity” (Marsh et al., 1996). In order to test this, experiments were set up similar to Smith et al. but additionally; creativity was examined more closely using the proportion of copied features to novel features. The standard conformity effect was observed, however, evaluating the different metrics of creativity (total output, elaborateness and number of non critical features) yielded results that showed providing examples did not constrain creativity.

Although the conformity effect has been replicated over many studies, it is not clear whether the effect is due to perceptual effects or whether the examples help generate a particular category representation. The goal of this experiment was to ascertain whether three shared features that converged on the single concept of hostility would cause concept-related features to be incorporated into participants; novel designs. It was predicted that the standard conformity effect would again be found. However, it was also predicted that participants might incorporate additional features that are consistent with the hostility concept, but that were not shown on the examples, into their designs.


Our statistical hypothesis indicated that participants who were shown examples of creatures would incorporate more hostile features in their own novel drawings as compared to people who were not shown example creatures. The alternative hypothesis indicated that there would not be a statistically significant difference between those who were shown creature examples and those who were not.

A total of 44 participants were included in the study and were randomly assigned to two groups. The experimental group, which was shown creature examples, contained 23 participants while the control group, which was not shown creature examples, consisted of 21 participants. Independence of observation and normality was assumed for both groups. Homogeneity of variance was analyzed with the Levene’s Test of Equality of Error Variances.

Levene’s test results indicated a violation of the assumption of homogeneity of variances, thus the variances were not assumed equal. F = 9.719, p = .003. The results should therefore be interpreted with caution.¬†An independent samples t-test revealed that the experimental group which was shown creature examples (M = .1285, SD = .1443) used significantly more hostile features compared to the control group which was not shown creature examples (M = .0369, SD = .1043), t(39.984) = -2.592, p = .013.


The results of the experiment supported the hypothesis that the standard conformity effect would be found and that participants would incorporate additional features that are consistent with the hostility concept, but that were not shown on the examples, into their designs. These results support Smith et al. and Marsh et al.’s claims that providing examples does indeed affect creative output. One explanation for the results is that the natural need for humans to learn and categorize inhibits creativity. Another explanation would be a more social need to conform. Future experiments could test not only creative ability but also correlate those results with conformity tests to determine whether the conformity effect might have more to do with personality than creativity.


Marsh, R. L., Landau, J. D., ; Hicks, J. L. (1996). How examples may (and may not) constrain creativity. Memory ; Cognition, 24(5), 669-680.

Scrull, T. K., ; Wyer, R. S. (1980). Category accessibility and social perception: Some implications for the study of person memory and interpersonal judgments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 38(6), 841-856.

Smith, S. M., Ward, T. B., ; Schumacher, J. S. (1993). Constraining effects of examples in a creative generation task. Memory and Cognition, 21(6), 837-845.

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