How to prevent associations from making us less creative

Word associations are common in brainstorm sessions and can be quite valuable in the search for creative ideas. Associations, however, can also limit our creativity.

How associations can limit creativity

Associating is great. Using words or images as inspiration to freely associate and making new combinations can lead to refreshing ideas. However, associations can also easily make us oblivious to unusual approaches. After all, our brain is rather lazy.

Our mind tends to follow the easiest path. A word primarily triggers associations within the field one is most active in. In his book, The Medici Effect, author Frans Johansson illustrates this with a simple example.

When a chef sees a cod in a fish market she may think of a particular recipe, which in turn makes her think of the menu items for the upcoming evening. But a writer for a sport-fishing magazine may see something very different. He may think instead of his latest fishing trip, instantly recalling the tackle he used and a story he should write about it.”

You hear or see one word (or image) and your mind instantly unlocks a whole chain of associations. This trick makes us terribly efficient. We can move quickly from analysis to action. At the same time, you can imagine how this associative thinking limits our ability to make new combinations. We jump to conclusions and our mind effectively creates a barrier to alternative ways of thinking about a particular situation. Johansson calls these obstructions on the path to original ideas ‘associate barriers’.

Oddly, some people seem to be unaffected by this. Take Swedish chef Marcus Samuelsson for instance.

Samuelsson became world famous with his unusual combinations: sea urchin sausage, espresso mustard saucecaramelised lobster and oysters with mango curry sorbet …to name just a few eyebrow-raising combinations that could be found on his menu and in his cookbooks.

Samuelsson has low associative barriers. He has the ability to easily connect different concepts across fields.

How to break down your associative barriers:

In The Medici Effect, Frans Johansson describes 4 methods to break down your associative barriers.

1. Expose yourself to a range of cultures

As I’ve written before, a person who has been exposed to multiple cultures tends to be less stuck to a particular point of view. He or she will likely view any situation from multiple perspectives.

This means that living in another country for a while can make you more creative. Yet cultures, of course, are not just geographical. Cultures can also be ethnic, class, professional or organisational.

Someone who has been exposed to different cultures is more likely to question traditions, rules and boundaries. Marcus Samuelsson is a good example of such a person. The Ethiopian-born chef grew up in Sweden with his adoptive parents. Samuelsson travelled a lot when he was a child and was exposed to lots of ‘weird’ types of food early on. Later, the young cook did apprenticeships in Switzerland and Austria and worked on a year-long cruise around the world (experiencing even more exciting types of food). These experiences explain why Samuelsson imagines (and dares to make) exciting combinations that other chefs would never even consider.

2. Learn differently

Education can limit your creativity, as it tends to focus on what a particular field has seen as valid. During a formal education, you will construct a chain of associations that makes it hard to break through your associative barrier.

Instead of learning all there is to know about a certain topic, learn as many things as possible without getting stuck in a particular way of thinking about those things. Educate yourself broadly. Where expertise can make it more difficult to break out of established patterns of thought, learning a new field can help break down associative barriers.

Many of the creative geniuses in history had an incredibly broad interest. Thomas Edison might not have had any higher levels of education, but he read about anything that interested him. Leonardo Da Vinci was not only a great painter but also busy in the fields of anatomy, botany, architecture and music …to name just a few of the things that interested him.

Edison and Da Vinci are also great examples of innovators who educated themselves; another trick to break down associative barriers. By learning fields and disciplines on your own, you have a greater chance of approaching them from a different perspective. It makes perfect sense to spend significant amounts of time reading, learning and experimenting, without having instructors, peers, and experts guide you.

 “I consider that all that I have learned of any value to be self-taught” – Charles Darwin

3. Reverse your assumptions

We all constantly make assumptions. Especially after years of excelling in a particular field, you know exactly what works and what doesn’t. Consciously or subconsciously you’ll decide to stick to best practices and you’ll do your best to avoid repeating past failures.

When you’re looking for creative ideas, it will work wonders to acknowledge what your assumptions about the situation at hand are. Once you know what your assumptions are, you can force yourself to break free from them by reversing whatever assumptions you make. While this may seem illogical and silly at first, you will soon discover that there is a way around any assumption.

This reversal of assumptions works similarly to the technique of the Creative Escape and consists of three steps:

Step 1. Write down the most obvious assumptions you have about your situation

What does everyone know about this subject? What is ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY, without which things wouldn’t work?

Step 2. Reverse the assumption that is MOST OBVIOUS

What can’t possibly be changed? Do it anyway.

Step 3. Generate ideas for your challenge, inspired on the reversed assumption


Say, for instance, you’d like to generate ideas for a new and innovative hotel. Some assumptions you might have about hotels are:

  1. a hotel always has rooms
  2. a hotel always has beds
  3. a hotel always has showers and toilets
  4. a hotel room should regularly be cleaned

Reversed, these assumptions would look something like this:

  1. a hotel NEVER has rooms
  2. a hotel NEVER has beds
  3. a hotel NEVER has showers and toilets
  4. a hotel room should not regularly (if ever) be cleaned

These provocative statements could inspire ideas like:

  1. a hotel with one large shared garden, in which people can set up their own tent.
  2. a hotel for business people who are waiting for their flight, perfectly equipped for getting some work done without being interrupted.
  3. a hotel for a niche market of grown men who’d like to be treated as babies (and thus walk around in giant diapers).
  4. a training hotel for cleaning crews: the rooms are presented to the client extremely filthy, for training purposes. This hotel could also be used for germophobia therapy.

4. Try on different perspectives

Your perspective determines how you view a situation. Once you realise this, you have the key to more original ideas in your hands. When you are trying to come up with more creative ideas, all you have to do is change your perspective. By looking at a situation with a ‘different pair of eyes’, you will almost certainly generate very different ideas.

One great way of doing this is by imagining how someone else might approach this situation. You could look at your situation through the eyes of someone (in)famous, but you could also imagine how someone in a different profession would tackle your challenge. How would a banker act in your situation? What about a dairy farmer? Would a police officer come up with something clever? And what about a circus clown, heart surgeon or hairdresser?

Imagining how someone else would handle a situation is but one of the many ways to change your perspective. A variation of the technique above is imagining you work for someone who inspires you. If you are an architect looking for creative ideas for a new building, imagine you are designing it for Pablo Picasso, Elon Musk or Marilyn Monroe. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have a clue what this person would actually like (or have liked). All that matters is that it inspires you.


If you’d like to read more about breaking through association barriers and the ‘intersection’ between different fields, I strongly recommend The Medici Effect, by Frans Johansson.


For even more idea-generating power, and the most structured brainstorm sessions you’ll ever have encountered, check out the brainstorm application Brightstorming.



Photo: Flickr © Glen Scott

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