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One of the common complaints of coworkers, or potential coworkers, is the noise level of a workspace. Noise, we figure, is negative, and distracts us from our tasks at hand. More scientifically put, noise causes processing difficulties or disfluency - a reduction in the ‘ease or speed with which we process information’. But according to a recent study on the effects of noise on creativity, this element of disruption is not necessarily a bad thing. On the contrary, a certain level of distraction, as when induced by a moderate level of ambient noise, induces abstract thinking and, in turn, creativity.
By Anna Cashman - Friday, 13 July 2012

Is noise always bad? 'A moderate background noise induces distraction which encourages individuals to think at a higher, abstract level, and consequently exhibit higher creativity - compared to both low and high levels of noise,' write the authors of 'Exploring the effects of ambient noise on creative cognition’. This study was undertaken by Ravi Mehta, Rui Zhu and Amar Cheema and published in the Journal of Consumer research.

It aimed to determine whether a moderate level of ambient noise (70db, equivalent to a moving automobile at a 10 meter distance or a television at a one meter distance) increased an individual’s creativity, compared to a low noise level (50 dB, around the level of normal talking at a distance of one meter).

To assess creative performance, they used the Remote Associates Test, used widely ‘to assess creative thinking in both psychology and marketing research.’ Their study comprised five experiments in which participants were asked to brainstorm ideas in certain scenarios. The noise they used was a combination of multi-talker noise in a cafeteria, roadside traffic, and distant construction noise. While this might not be the exact sound found in a local coworking space, it should be noted that there is no existing study relating to the type of noise, but simply a noise at a constant sound level, measured in decibels.

In each study, they found conclusively that when exposed to moderate levels of noise, participants were more likely to come up with creative solutions and, in one experiment whose methodology allowed the judgement of the creativity, more original ideas: '(W)e show that a moderate (vs. low) level of ambient noise induces process disfluency, which leads to abstract cognition and consequently enhances creativity'.

In addition, ‘(the third experiment) provides crucial support for our theory by demonstrating (...) that moderate (vs. low) levels of noise induce higher processing disfluency, which induces a higher construal level and abstract processing, and consequently enhances both the originality and the appropriateness dimensions of creativity.’

There is however a threshold at which noise inhibits creativity. The study found that high levels of noise (85dB, equivalent to traffic noise on a major road at a distance of 10 meters) inhibited the ability to process information, and therefore impaired creativity. 

Interestingly, the duration to which participants were exposed to moderate (vs. low) levels of ambient noise had no impact on the level of creativity: it remained consistent throughout the experiments. On the contrary, the physical arousal of moderate noise levels - such as heart rate and blood pressure - were not persistent throughout the experiments.

It is curious too to note that the levels of ‘distractedness’ - or participants’ awareness of processing disfluency - were persistent throughout the experiments, but that it is this precise factor that increases creativity. This may offer some insight into the reason why coworkers frequently cite ‘noisiness’ as a displeasing feature of their coworking space, but tend to feel that their membership with a space has improved their business in terms of productivity; whether enhanced creativity plays a role in their satisfaction with their coworking space is yet to be studied, but it is not outside the realms of possibility.

This is the first study that examines the effect of ambient noise levels on creativity. In the theoretical background, the study points out that ‘noise’, by definition, is any unwanted sound. But there is room for different thinking. This study is a breakthrough in the field of workplace optimization. It proves that, in order to increase creativity and promote innovation - two skills that are desirable in most industries - a workspace should avoid being pin-drop quiet.

Certainly, this study may provide some insight into the effectiveness of coworking spaces, which are often noisy by traditional workspace standards. Striking a balance between noisy and calm, however, remains a challenge. But a starting point might be for coworking spaces to change their rhetoric, and start talking about the ambience of their space in terms of ‘sound level’ and ‘creativity enhancement’, rather than ‘loudness’ and ‘distraction’.


Download (PDF): Is Noise Always Bad? Exploring the Effects of Ambient Noise on Creative Cognition.

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