The Blank Page: Effects of Constraint on Creativity

I finished my doctoral dissertation in December.  I am proud to announce that I am now officially “Dr. Caneel Joyce” and owner of the letters P, h, and D.   Thank you, U.C. Berkeley.  Thank you, Haas School of Business.  Thank you friends, advisors, Mom, Dad, brother, and especially, husband.

The dissertation is of course, very academic in style.  I will write up some of the main ideas in future blog posts.  In the meantime, I would be very interested in hearing your thoughts.  The abstract is below and you can download the full text PDF.

The Blank Page: Effects of Constraint on Creativity

Abstract: This dissertation is about how constraint—restrictions to freedom that limit and direct search—influences creativity.  Freedom is often associated with creativity, yet recent work in the decision making literature suggests that too much freedom can be paralyzing when it provides too many choices.  This dissertation examines how the extent of constraint imposed on a task, when conceptualized as a continuum, affects creative processes and outcomes. It employs a multi-method, multi-level approach through three studies.

Study 1 was a controlled laboratory experiment centered around a written product design task where constraint was manipulated by varying task instructions.  A curvilinear effect of constraint on creativity was identified such that a moderate degree of constraint was more conducive to creativity than either a high or a low degree.  These effects were not explained by alternative explanations such as time allocation during the task, or decreased intrinsic motivation.

Studies 2 and 3 examined the role of constraint in 43 new product development teams.  Through quantitative analysis, Study 2 found that the degree of constraint that new product development teams voluntarily imposed on their projects at the beginning of the semester predicted the creativity of their product proposals more than ten weeks later.  The results held up even when controlling for task conflict.

Study 3 examined the same 43 teams through a series of three multi-method case studies.  Grounded-theory analysis gave qualitative support to the theory proposed in Chapter 2 and revealed several emergent themes that were not anticipated, namely: assumption-constrained creativity, uncovering latent conflict, and confirmation-constrained creativity.  The study resulted in new predictions about how constraint affects creative teams, and a novel framework for conceptualizing creativity as a hypothesis-testing activity.

These findings suggest that while some amount of choice is important for encouraging creativity, too much can be counterproductive, which runs counter to many popular theories of creativity.  This dissertation should provide encouragement to organizations that are 
institutionally embedded, have scarce resources, or are otherwise restricted.

Download The Blank Page: Effects of Constraint on Creativity or any of my other papers about creativity, design, and innovation on SSRN.

5 Replies to “The Blank Page: Effects of Constraint on Creativity”

  1. READ THIS IF YOU COULDN'T DOWNLOAD THE PAPER. Tony, I have called SSRN and they said the problem is widespread. Luckily there is a workaround – just download it from my author page ( You can see my other papers there too. Thanks for letting me know about the problem!

  2. Congratulations on completing your dissertation! I enjoyed reading it and you make some very interesting points. Giving someone absolute freedom and expecting enormous results is like telling a caveman to "come up with an idea that will propel society into the future." Instead, tell him you need to transport really heavy boulders between two locations and BAM!- you've got the wheel!

  3. I stumbled across your work through Laura Kray's facebook wall (she and I have collaborated on several projects)–a fortuitous stumble b/c I do research on how physical environments influence creativity (e.g., is there any truth behind the notion of creative chaos?). In any case, your dissertation research sounds fascinating–I'm looking foward to read more about it!

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