UCLA’s Hershfield: Creative People Are Hardwired to See Further

Hal E. Hershfield of UCLA

Hal E. Hershfield of UCLA’s Anderson School is Poets&Quants’ Professor of the Week

Artists and writers have created some of the most visionary, imaginative works of our time, from Harry Potter to Star Wars to Game of Thrones. And those who know creative people often have the impression they think differently from other folks.

That’s actually true and there’s a reason for it: Their brains process information differently, enabling them to see further and deeper. That’s the finding of Poets&Quants’ Professor of the Week, Hal E. Hershfield of UCLA Anderson School of Management and several co-authors. It has major implications for how to manage creative professionals in organizations.

The paper, “Creative Expertise Is Associated with Transcending the Here and Now,” was written by Hershfield and Meghan L. Meyer of Dartmouth College, Adam G. Waytz of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, and Diana I. Tamir and graduate student Judith N. Mildner of Princeton University. (Meyer and Tamir played a big role in doing the actual research, Hershfield says.) It appeared this year in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Hershfield and his co-authors begin with the observation that most people have little trouble imagining what tomorrow may bring or what a friend may be thinking—what the researchers call “proximal simulations.” Conjuring up what may happen in the far future (what they call “distal simulations”), however, is far more difficult. 

But that’s exactly where creative people excel. “Novelists, actors, directors, and artists all transcend direct perception to create vivid stories, characters, and images,” the researchers write. “Creativity has been linked empirically to outcomes related to distal simulation, such as imagining the past and future.”

To test that, the researchers examined people from the general population to measure how vividly they can imagine future events. Then they compared 100 “creative experts”—accomplished artists, novelists, actors, and directors who had won prestigious awards like Guggenheim Fellowships or MacArthur Fellowships (dubbed “genius grants” by the media)—with a control group of 97 participants from the legal, medical, and financial fields.

“Creativity is associated with vividly simulating distant times, spaces, perspectives, and hypothetical realities,” the researchers write. As expected, the creative people excelled at “imagining distant times, places, perspectives, and counterfactuals,” while the doctors, lawyers, and bankers scored much lower in tests of creativity and imagination.

But why? This is where Hershfield and his colleagues turned from social psychology to neurobiology. They administered magnetic resonance imagery (MRI) exams to the brains of some of the subjects of the experiment, and what they found was striking: Everybody used the same part of their brains for more down to earth, “proximal” tasks, but when it came to imaginative, “distal” simulations the creatives showed activity in a whole other part of their brains—the dorsomedial subsection. They even showed increased dorsomedial activity during rest periods, “suggesting creative individuals may be neurally prepared to transcend the here and now and/or engage in vivid distal simulation by default,” Hershfield and his co-authors write.

“Creative experts experience and demonstrate an exceptional ability to imagine distal events. Creative experts accomplish these feats by switching on a distal simulation muscle that appears to be harder to engage for less creative individuals,” they conclude. “Creativity may help us get outside ourselves, extending our imaginations to farther times, spaces, perspectives, and hypothetical realities.”

The research implies that managers may need to use different strategies and incentives to motivate creative professionals like game designers, graphic artists, and advertising copywriters, than they would use on, say, bankers or accountants, because their brains work differently.

Hershfield, 40, is an associate professor of marketing at UCLA Anderson. His research focuses on how thinking about time transforms the emotions and alters the judgments and decisions people make. One of his more notable research initiatives was to ask people to confront their future selves. That helped them experience a connection to the future that influenced their long-term decision making. He teaches introductory marketing classes to MBAs and executive MBAs.

Having earned his BA in psychology and English at Tufts, he got his Ph.D. in psychology from Stanford, and then did a post-doc fellowship at Kellogg designed for psychology PhDs who were on track to be business school professors. After a stint at NYU Stern, he joined the Anderson faculty in 2014 and got tenure three years later. He has won several awards for research and teaching, including being named one of Poets&Quants40 Under 40 Top Business School Professors in 2017.  

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