Embarrassed but Bursting with Ideas

People brainstorm more creatively after they share embarrassing stories.
Embarrassed but Bursting with Ideas

WHILE MOST PEOPLE try to forget the embarrassing moments of their lives, new research shows that recalling and sharing those moments could spark their creativity during group brainstorming sessions. In fact, groups whose members share embarrassing stories produce ideas that are both more numerous and more varied than groups that describe experiences that made them proud. These are the findings of Elizabeth Ruth Wilson of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Massachusetts; Leigh Thompson of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management in Evanston, Illinois; and Brian J. Lucas of the ILR School of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

“When you have a brainstorming session, what you’re hoping is that people are putting out any idea, without regard to any judgment or evaluation,” says Thompson in an article on the KelloggInsight website. When people begin corporate brainstorming events by describing their achievements, says Thompson, there can be an inhibiting effect, because they don’t want to look ridiculous a few minutes later by proposing an odd idea. But the researchers wondered if people might stop censoring themselves if they’d already recounted embarrassing anecdotes.

In one experiment, researchers asked 11 individual online participants to describe either an embarrassing incident, an accomplishment that made them proud, or their morning commute (the control group). Afterward, participants were asked to brainstorm unusual uses for a paper clip. Those in the “embarrassment” group generated not only more ideas but also a greater range of ideas than those in either the “pride” group or the control group.

In a second experiment aimed at groups, the researchers created three-person teams out of 93 managers enrolled in an executive education program. Each team was asked to come up with unusual uses for a cardboard box. Before brainstorming, half of the teams shared recent embarrassing moments and half shared proud ones. Teams that had shared embarrassing stories generated 26 percent more ideas—and a wider range of ideas—than teams that had recited their accomplishments.

“One of the big findings in the creativity and innovation literature is that you want to have a lot of ideas to play with,” Thompson says. “If one group has nearly 30 percent more ideas than another group, there’s just a lot more fuel for the fire.”

The researchers speculate that recounting embarrassing stories might make participants stop worrying about future embarrassment, or it might help them like and trust their team members more. In addition, says Thompson, such an exercise engages participants from the start.

“Automatically, people start listening,” she says. “There’s an irresistible urge to let [the storyteller] finish, because the human story is never boring.”

“Pride and Pratfalls: Recounting Embarrassing Stories Increases Creativity” appeared in the January 2020 issue of the International Journal of Design Creativity and Innovation.