Video calls hurt creativity

(ORDO NEWS) — Scientists have confirmed the assumption that video communication with colleagues narrows the “cognitive focus”, ultimately limiting the ability to generate creative ideas.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced millions of people to change their lives, including their workflow. Many of us have gone remote (and some still are): experts estimate that even after the removal of severe coronavirus restrictions in the United States, 20 percent of working days will be spent at home.

According to a 2021 survey, 75 percent of Americans prefer to work remotely at least one day a week, and 40 percent expressed a willingness to quit their job if their bosses require a permanent presence in the office.

As a result, the usual meetings, planning meetings, so-called brainstorms and interviews are often carried out online.

However, according to the authors of a new study published in the journal Nature , the consequences of not communicating in person and how it can affect the work and creative processes, the ability to come up with creative ideas and develop many areas, is still not clear.

According to scientists from Stanford (USA), face-to-face interaction has an inherent and overlooked difference: in this case, employees are in the same common physical space, while through video communication they “inhabit” the virtual space limited by the screen.

This forces the interlocutors to narrow their field of vision as well, concentrating on a computer or smartphone monitor and filtering out peripheral visual stimuli that are not visible or not related to their colleagues.

At the same time, the “cognitive focus” shrinks, previous studies have shown. It limits the associative process underlying the generation of ideas – the system of connections between various phenomena: due to it, thoughts “branch” and activate disparate information, which is then brought together to give rise to new ideas.

Nevertheless, the authors of the new work note that the “narrowed” cognitive focus due to the use of video conferencing does not interfere with all types of activity, although it definitely prevents the generation of ideas. This was confirmed in a laboratory experiment involving 602 people.

They were randomly assigned into pairs and asked to come up with several creative ideas about a particular product in five minutes, and then in a minute to choose the most successful one.

Volunteers communicated with each other either offline or online via video link (only the partner’s image was displayed on the screen, but not themselves). After that, scientists evaluated creativity, the proposed ideas and their number, and also analyzed whether the participants in the experiment made the right choice.

It turned out that couples who communicated online produced fewer creative ideas than those who had a brainstorm in real life.

However, virtual interaction increased the quality of the selection: participants who communicated via video link chose the idea with a significantly higher rating and were less likely to make mistakes.

Thus, personal communication is beneficial for work that involves creativity, but it is probably not reflected in other areas (for example, where analytical thinking is needed).

The researchers further considered the hypothesis that virtual communication hinders idea generation by limiting cognitive capabilities. In the second experiment, 151 couples had to figure out (again in person or online) how to use the product in an original way.

At the same time, they were offered ten items such as a folder, a flower, a plate of lemons, and a poster. In order to understand how much video communication narrows the field of view, at the end the participants were asked to remember what props were in the room. The researchers also assessed where the subjects’ eyes were directed while talking to each other.

Confirming the hypothesis of the authors of the work, couples who interacted online spent much more time looking directly at the partner, concentrating only on him, and remembered significantly less objects placed around the room.

Meanwhile, people who more often looked around the room where the interlocutor was sitting and noticed the details gave out more creative ideas, the scientists emphasized.

“Virtual communication narrows the visual focus. Our results provide causal evidence that online interaction, compared to in-person interaction, interferes with idea generation,” the researchers concluded.

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