The merits of unconscious thought in creativity

Psychol Sci. 2008 Sep;19(9):912-8. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02176.x.


Research has yielded weak empirical support for the idea that creative solutions may be discovered through unconscious thought, despite anecdotes to this effect. To understand this gap, we examined the effect of unconscious thought on two outcomes of a remote-association test (RAT): implicit accessibility and conscious reporting of answers. In Experiment 1, which used very difficult RAT items, a short period of unconscious thought (i.e., participants were distracted while holding the goal of solving the RAT items) increased the accessibility of RAT answers, but did not increase the number of correct answers compared with an equal duration of conscious thought or mere distraction. In Experiment 2, which used moderately difficult RAT items, unconscious thought led to a similar level of accessibility, but fewer correct answers, compared with conscious thought. These findings confirm and extend unconscious-thought theory by demonstrating that processes that increase the mental activation of correct solutions do not necessarily lead them into consciousness.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial

MeSH terms

  • Association Learning
  • Attention
  • Awareness
  • Creativity*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Pattern Recognition, Visual
  • Problem Solving
  • Reaction Time
  • Reading
  • Thinking*
  • Unconscious, Psychology*
  • Young Adult