Is necessity truly the mother of invention? Yes, according to a recent study testing the link between scarce conditions and creative solutions.
In one experiment, researchers from the University of Illinois and Johns Hopkins placed 95 undergrads at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign into three condition groups—abundance, scarcity and a control group. The students in the abundance and scarcity groups were asked to write briefly about their experiences growing up with scarce resources or abundant resources.
They were then given building blocks asked to participate in a toy-building project. Fifteen impartial judges assessed them on innovativeness, novelty, and originality ranking them from 1 to 7 ("not at all" to "very much"). The people in the scarcity group had the more original prototypes. They were also judged on the appropriateness of the prototypes – how they stacked up when it came to "effectiveness, practicality, and usefulness." And both groups scored similarly.
For another experiment, the researchers randomly sorted 56 undergrads at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh into those same three groups. The students were then asked to think of as many uses of a brick as they could—leaving out the standard responses or "virtually impossible" ones—in two minutes.
The group came up with 349 answers total, and then the researchers brought in a group of judges to weigh in on the novelty, innovativeness and originality of the responses on that same seven point scale. Once the ratings were averaged together, the solutions thought up by the students in the scarcity group were considered more innovative—but again, the appropriateness of those solutions for both groups were largely the same.
Other scenarios that were posed to the groups of study participants included figuring out how to offload extra bubble wrap sheets from Urbana-Champaign's relocation of the school's computer labs—and the potential uses for it besides transporting equipment—and coming up with ways to improve upon a standard computer keyboard.
In each instance, the researchers found that the people in the scarcity group came up with ideas that were considered to be the most inventive. Ultimately, authors Ravi Mehta and Meng Zhu wrote of their findings that "a general sense of scarcity makes people behave in a less functionally fixed manner, that is, think beyond the obvious or more traditional ways of using a given product."
The findings are a comforting reminder to bootstrapping entrepreneurs: even in this funding-crazed world, elbow grease and ingenuity still matter.
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