Want to Stimulate Creativity? Try Going to the Coffee Shop


For any creative: marketer or designer, copywriter or blogger, chief marketing officer or freelancer, the difference between a good idea and a great idea can often be slight. But it can mean the difference between landing a client or leaving as an also-ran. So when you’re in the business of being creative, fostering an environment that lets ideas flow can be as important as the ideas themselves.

So what does science have to say about creative work environments? Coffee shops.

Coffee shops have long been pegged as the cliché hangout for creative people: from beatnik writers, to European intelligentsia, to today’s vast army of Starbucks freelancers. But as David Burkus notes in Psychology Today, it’s not the coffee that does the trick, it’s the background nose.

The background music, paper shuffling, rhythmic pounding of keyboards and whirring of coffee grinders might be just the trick to kick the imagination into high gear.

In a recently published study in the Journal of Consumer Research, a team of professors led by Ravi Mehta at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign explored the effects of various levels of background noise on individual creative thinking. The researchers divided participants into four teams and subjected each team to background noise at a different volume (50 decibels, 70 decibels, 85 decibels and a control of no background noise). They asked each participant to complete a Remote Associates Test, a commonly accepted measurement of creative thinking. When they tabulated the results, the researchers found that those in the moderate-noise condition outperformed those in all the other conditions, hence moderate-noise was amplifying their creative output.

The study also confirms what we’ve probably already known: too much noise is distracting and can hurt creativity. But, as Burkus notes, our instinct to lock ourselves away to get work done in a quiet environment might not work. And the study’s conclusions about ambient noise isn’t specific to any one venue: parks or a sufficiently bustling library might also do the trick – it’s all in the volume.

But there’s a fascinating addendum to this study: being surrounded by sufficient levels of ambient noise also increases the “buying likelihood of innovative products.” When participants were confronted with a choice over a “traditional” vs. an “innovative” product, they were more likely to choose the innovative one when exposed to moderate ambient noise.

That’s not to say bosses should let their employees start working out of the nearest cafe, but it might not be the worst idea in the world. More likely, it’s a reason to not lock yourself in the office in solitude and instead get out where the not-too-loud action is at.