Brainstorming: Fun but does it Work?

Psychology 101: The 101 Ideas, Concepts and Theories that Have Shaped Our World - Adrian Furnham 2021

Brainstorming: Fun but does it Work?

Society is creative when it is ruled by creative spirits. (C. Collins, 1960, The Vision of a Fool)

Can creativity be taught? How do we come up with a really innovative idea? What is the best method for generating ideas? For many, the answer to these problems is brainstorming. But does it work to solve problems or come up with new ideas? Now we have to call it ’thought-showering’.

Brainstorming is used most frequently to generate as many solutions to a particular problem as possible because quantity is favoured over quality. The basic assumption is that ’two heads are better than one’ and that together, in groups, innovative solutions can be found. There are guidelines:

• Group size should be about five to seven people.

• No criticism allowed.

• Freewheeling is encouraged.

• Quantity and variety is also favoured.

• Encourage combinations and improvements.

• Notes must be taken.

• The alternatives generated.

The session should not be rigidly over-structured by following any of the preceding seven rules too rigidly.

Imagine working on a problem that requires several very specific steps and has a definite right or wrong answer, such as an arithmetic problem or a crossword puzzle. How can one expect to perform on such a well-structured task when working alone compared to when working with a group of people?

Research findings indicate that groups performing well-structured tasks tend to make better, more accurate decisions, but take more time to reach them than individuals. In one study, people worked either alone or in groups of five on several well-structured problems. Comparisons between groups and individuals were made with respect to accuracy (the number of problems solved correctly) and speed (the time it took to solve the problems). It was found that the average accuracy of groups of five persons working together was greater than the average accuracy of five individuals working alone. However, it was also found that groups were substantially slower (as much as 40 per cent) than individuals in reaching solutions.

Groups are accurate but slow. But the potential advantage that groups might enjoy is being able to pool their resources and combine their knowledge to generate a wide variety of approaches to problems. For these benefits to be realized, however, it is essential that the group members have the necessary knowledge and skills to contribute to the group’s task. In short, for there to be a beneficial effect of pooling of resources, there has to be something to pool. Two heads may be better than one only when neither is a blockhead — the ’pooling of ignorance’ does not help at all.

Most of the problems faced by organizations are not well structured. They do not have any obvious steps or parts, and there is no obviously right or wrong answer. Such problems are referred to as poorly structured. Creative thinking is required to make decisions on poorly structured tasks. For example, a company deciding how to use a newly developed chemical in its consumer products is facing a poorly structured task. Other poorly structured tasks include: coming up with a new product name, image or logo; or finding new or original uses for familiar objects like a coat-hanger, paper clip or brick.

Although you may expect that the complexity of such creative problems would give groups a natural advantage, this is not the case. In fact, research has shown that on poorly structured, creative tasks, individuals perform better than groups. Specifically, in one study people were given 35 minutes to consider the consequences of everybody suddenly going blind. Comparisons were made of the number of ideas/issues/outcomes generated by groups of four or seven people and a like number of individuals working on the same problem alone. Individuals were far more productive than groups and arrived at their answers much faster.

Most brainstorming is used by creative organizations which care little about the skill composition of the problem solving groups who are then confronted with poorly structured tasks such as thinking of the name for a new product. In other words, brainstorming is used when it is least effective, and rarely when it is most effective.

How does brainstorming translate into other languages? For a non-native speaker thinking literally, it may be associated linguistically with an epileptic fit or a splitting headache. Certainly, for some people the experience of taking part in this activity to solve a creative, open-ended task leads to a migraine. The paradox of brainstorming is that this technique is most frequently used when research suggests it is least effective.

Even though brainstorming is a very popular technique among managers and business consultants for stimulating creativity in groups at work, the research literature has shown that group interaction seems to inhibit the sharing of novel ideas. Groups using the brainstorming rules generate substantially fewer ideas than the same number of individuals producing new ideas in isolation. Researchers have suggested that this productivity loss might be attributable to:

(a) The fear that group members experience of their ideas being negatively evaluated by their peers; that is, evaluation apprehension.

(b) The difficulty of simultaneously listening to the ideas of others and thinking of one’s own ideas; that is, production blocking.

(c) The tendency of people to put less effort into carrying out a task when they work in group settings; that is, social loafing.

On these grounds, it has been argued that idea generation may be best left to individuals, whereas the selection and implementation of high-quality ideas may be a task better performed in groups.

However, individuals brainstorming in groups often report that they have lots of fun trying to find new ways to improve their jobs. People generating ideas in group settings seem to experience a condition of cognitive stimulation, which actually facilitates the generation of a higher quantity and quality of novel ideas.

Other procedural techniques that have been developed to overcome the limitations of group brainstorming have focused on exchanging ideas by writing instead of talking. These techniques are usually referred to as ’brainwriting’ and aim at limiting the production blocking that occurs in brainstorming groups. Writing instead of speaking facilitates the generation of novel ideas because group members have the opportunity to choose when to attend to the ideas of others. Therefore, group members are not required to perform the rather demanding task of attending to the ideas of others, building on these ideas and simultaneously generating their own ideas.

Finally, brainstorming is also performed in ’electronic brainstorming groups’, in which case the interaction among group members is taking place through computers eliminating any oral communication among the interacting parties. All the procedural techniques presented above do also deal to some extent with the problem of ’evaluation apprehension’ people most likely experience in brainstorming groups since ideas generated by group members are kept anonymous.


Osborn, A.F. (1963) Applied Imagination: Principles and procedures of creative problem solving. New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Furnham, A., & Yazdanpanahi, T. (1995). Personality differences and group versus individual brainstorming. Personality and Individual Differences, 19, 73—80.