Research: The Best Innovative Ideas Come From People With Diverse Interests

Getting curious about things outside your field boosts the quality of your ideas.

Alison Escalante MD
Mar 4 · 4 min read
A window with the words Your Ideas Matter
A window with the words Your Ideas Matter
People who are open to a range of interests produce better ideas. Image by Mika Baumeister via Unsplash.

Innovators have a way of being interested in everything. In childhood they were always getting called on by their teachers for being distracted. If we could listen in on their thoughts, it might go, “Ooh, a squirrel. Hey, look at that! Shiny.”

In a culture that sells us on the idea that success comes from a focused pursuit of our one passion, innovators have a way of forgetting to focus. Instead, they play with a range of interests. It’s nicknamed the ‘squirrel method.’ In adulthood, innovators still find themselves distracted by shiny objects or passionately chasing squirrels. But it’s when innovators make connections between those apparently unrelated interests that their best ideas emerge.

New research finds that people’s mindset about their interests impacts the quality of their ideas. People with a growth mindset about their interests who believe they can develop new interests over time produce better ideas. On the other hand, people with a fixed mindset about their interests, believing interests are found and can’t change, produce lower quality ideas.

Further, a growth mindset about interests increases people’s likelihood to notice connections between fields. They can produce innovative ideas that cross categories, connecting their usual areas of interest with novel areas.

Paul A. O’Keefe, Yale-NUS College Assistant Professor of Psychology, has been curious about our interests for years. His work up until now has found that people have varying beliefs about interests. Some people believe we are interested in what we are interested in. This fixed mindset approach sees interests as something we find. But others have a growth mindset about their interests, believing they are developed. That growth mindset often leads people to explore interests outside of their core area.

O’Keefe approached the current study with two questions: does a growth mindset of interests produce better ideas? And the bigger question: can people actually develop a growth mindset about their interests if they don’t already have one?

Interests and innovative ideas

For the study, the researchers recruited undergraduates with a well-established interest in either the arts or sciences. The participants were also surveyed about their mindset toward developing new interests, while blinding them to the role of a fixed vs. a growth mindset in the study.

The study involved a series of tasks. In one, participants who were interested in the Arts were given the following instructions: “Imagine you are the chief curator of an Arts/Humanities museum. In the space below, list all of the ways, if any, you could draw from Science/Technology fields to create your exhibits.” The undergraduates who preferred the sciences were given the opposite instructions. Their ideas were then rated for quality by independent observers.

The undergraduates with a stronger growth theory of interest produced more high-quality ideas, which supported the researchers’ hypothesis. This relationship held throughout the study.

In another task, participants were told they were to “create new academic majors that could be implemented at [ university]. The majors you create, however, should combine existing programs offered at the university.” Given a list of 18 majors, they were asked to combine majors and give their rationale for their creations. They could take as long as they wanted, create as few or as many new majors as they liked. Also, they were not given any nudge toward combining sciences and arts because the researchers wanted to see what they would do spontaneously.

The undergraduates produced creative ideas like engineering and film studies, computer science and psychology, and various sciences majors with theater studies, which showed high integrative thinking. Those higher in a growth mindset of interests produced higher quality ideas overall, as well as more integrative ideas. They also showed more creative and divergent thinking in their rationales.

The researchers repeated these tasks with a second round of participants who were not students to see if their findings held true. A stronger growth mindset of interests continue to predict higher quality ideas. Further, they found that innovative ideas were also mediated by participants ‘utility value’ for interests outside of their usual fields. In other words, if people thought unrelated interests could be useful, they produced better ideas.

Organizations and creative solutions

“This research provides a useful direction for organizations whose products and services call for integrated and creative solutions,” said O’Keefe in a press release. “Take smartphones, for example. You not only need computer science and engineering knowledge, but also an understanding of psychology and visual design to create a product that is useful and resonates with the user. When organizations hire people with a growth mindset, or promote it among their employees, those employees may be more likely to devise innovative ideas that bridge multiple areas of knowledge to achieve better solutions.”

And yes, O’Keefe says, that growth mindset about interests can be cultivated. “People can be influenced to adopt a growth mindset of interest if they are immersed in an environment with a culture that promotes and reinforces the idea that interests can grow and develop.”

For O’Keefe, the first step is understanding that interests can develop. “Ultimately, that may spark out-of-the-box thinking and game-changing innovations.”

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