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Effects of Noise on Creativity
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Author: Ravi Mehta, Rui (Juliet) Zhu, and Amar Cheema
Is Noise Bad?

This complete article can be found at http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/665048 in the

Journal of Consumer Research.            


By definition, any unwanted sound is called “noise.” A sound is defined as a vibration, or a traveling wave that is an oscillation of pressure transmitted through a medium (solid, liquid, or gas). The pressure of these vibrations within a given frequency range stimulates sensation in the ears and enables hearing. Hearing is thus sensitive to the sound pressure level, or “sound level,” measured in decibels (dB). (See appendix table A1 for a list of sound sources and their sound levels.) It is worth noting that sound level is not equivalent to loudness; the latter is a psychological correlate and a subjective measure of sound level. There is a complex relationship between the two, such that a 10 dB increase in sound level approximately corresponds to a twofold increase in loudness (“Noise Pollution,” The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. [2008]).

Although considerable research has examined the effects of noise on human cognition and behavior (Hamilton and Copeman 1970; Hockey 19691970a1970b; Hygge, Evans, and Bullinger 2002; Nagar and Pandey 1987; O’Malley and Poplawsky 1971; Weinstein 1974), there has been little focus on the effects of noise on creativity. Furthermore, this limited area of research has not only produced inconclusive results but also proposed different process mechanisms through which noise might affect creativity. The most common finding is that high levels of noise hurt creativity. Researchers have focused on primarily white noise and pink noise in this line of research. White noise is a sound that is artificially created by combining all audible frequencies (i.e., every frequency within the range of human hearing, generally from 250 Hz to 8,000 kHz) in equal amounts. White noise sounds like a gentle hiss. Pink noise is also artificially created and is a variant of white noise. Pink noise sounds something like the buzz on an empty television station. For example, Martindale and Greenough (1973) demonstrate that a high level of white noise reduces performance on the Remote Associates Test (RAT), a task commonly used to measure creativity; they conjecture that high arousal induced by the high level of white noise is responsible for the reduced creativity they observed. Kasof (1997) demonstrates that creative performance in writing poetry is impaired by exposure to a high level of pink noise, and speculates that the high noise level may have hurt creativity by narrowing attention. Hillier et al. (2006) argue that stress induced by a high level of white noise is responsible for reduced performance on a creative task (RAT). None of these studies, however, actually tested their proposed process mechanism.

One exception in this line of research is the finding that for highly creative individuals, a moderate noise level may lead to higher creative performance relative to both low and high noise levels (Toplyn and Maguire 1991). Toplyn and Maguire had participants complete a number of creativity tasks and used their performance on one such task (the RAT) to assess their baseline creativity level. They found that highly creative individuals (defined as those who scored high on the RAT) exhibited greater creativity on other tasks when presented with a moderate level of white noise than when the noise level was either high or low. Toplyn and Maguire speculate that arousal may underlie this effect. For less creative individuals, on the other hand, no significant difference was observed among low, moderate, and high levels of noise.

The above review of the extant literature on the impact of noise on creativity thus reveals a number of problems. First, this literature not only has produced inconclusive results but also lacks rigorous testing of the proposed mechanisms through which noise affects creativity. In the current paper, therefore, we empirically test the cognitive mechanism through which we propose ambient noise affects creativity. Second, most extant research has employed nonrealistic noise stimuli that are neither common nor sustainable in typical consumption contexts, such as white noise (Hillier et al. 2006; Martindale and Greenough 1973; Toplyn and Maguire 1991) and pink noise (Kasof 1997). In our research we therefore focus on ambient noises that are much more common in daily life (e.g., background noise in a restaurant). Finally, existing research is silent on how noise may influence individuals’ acceptance of creative ideas. We examine this question in one of our studies by looking at how noise affects consumers’ responses to innovative products.

The Proposed Process through Which Noise Can Affect Creativity

We argue that noise distracts people but that the degree of distraction induced by various noise levels will affect creativity differently. A high level of noise may cause a great deal of distraction, causing individuals to process information to a lesser extent and therefore to exhibit lower creativity. A moderate (vs. low) level of noise, however, is expected to distract people without significantly affecting the extent of processing. Further, we reason that such a moderate distraction, which induces processing difficulty, enhances creativity by prompting abstract 



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