25-Cent Creativity Booster


Want to boost your creativity by investing a quarter or so? Buy a lightbulb. Not the fancy LED, halogen, or compact fluorescent variety – just the old-fashioned, cheap incandescent kind that come in four-packs for a buck or so. Skeptical? Read on…

As long as I can remember, the image of a light bulb has been a symbol of creative thought. Park a cartoon lightbulb over a cartoon scientist, and just about everyone will know the scientist just had a great insight. In a rather remarkable example of life imitating art, research at Tufts University has found that working next to a lightbulb actually increases creativity.

Previous research has characterized insight as the product of internal processes, and has thus investigated the cognitive and motivational processes that immediately precede it. In this research, however, we investigate whether insight can be catalyzed by a cultural artifact, an external object imbued with learned meaning. Specifically, we exposed participants to an illuminating lightbulb – an iconic image of insight – prior to or during insight problem-solving. Across four studies, exposing participants to an illuminating lightbulb primed concepts associated with achieving an insight, and enhanced insight problem-solving in three different domains (spatial, verbal, and mathematical), but did not enhance general (non-insight) problem-solving. [From the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology – Shedding light on insight: Priming bright ideas by Michael Slepian et al.]

The interesting aspect of this study is that it has nothing to do with illumination and everything to do with our cultural notion that lightbulbs are related to creativity. Priming the subjects with this iconic image actually boosted their problem solving skills when the problem required a creative solution. In one test, subjects exposed to a light bulb solved “insight” problems nearly 40% of the time compared with 10% in a no-bulb control group.

One wonders if a light bulb poster would have done just as well. Or perhaps a picture of Einstein. Or both.

Regardless, if, like me, you see a light bulb over someone’s head in an illustration and immediately think “bright idea,” fire up YOUR OWN light bulb when you want to work on a difficult problem. You’ll likely find the solution more quickly. And skip the fancy & expensive LED, halogen, and compact fluorescent bulbs – your brain has been programmed to associate creativity with old-fashioned incandescent bulbs that now cost as little as a quarter.

Image via Shutterstock

  1. Doug Beckers says

    Great article Roger, we are running a workshop in August and we were searching for an “anchor” for creative thought and the light bulb is the solution!

    Unfortunately though, here in Australia it is now very difficult to purchase incandescent light bulbs as they are now illegal to import because of their energy inefficiency. Maybe over time, the new “fancy” compact fluorescent’s may become the new “creativity light bulb”.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Interesting, Doug. Maybe an image of a light bulb would work?

      I fail to see the point of making incandescent light bulbs illegal. Certain kinds of lighting situations still are poorly served by alternative technologies. Why not just apply a tax, say, $2, to them? If you really needed an incandescent (say, in a bare-bulb chandelier), that would be a small price to pay. On the other hand, if you merely needed illumination, CFL bulbs would be the best choice from a first-cost and operating cost standpoint.


  2. Adam Lawrence says

    it’s not just Australia where this is the case. The incandescent bulbs are such horrendous energy-wasters that they are being phased out in Europe too. In Germany, they are already impossible to find.

    And even with a two dollar tax, the incandescent bulb would still be far cheaper at the checkout than the greener alternative. (They are cheaper over the lifetime of the bulb, but more expensive at the point of purchase – I pay seven or eight dollars).

    I wonder what will replace them in their iconic function? Will it be the new forms (which can be made to look identical) – or will we keep a parallel iconography of the old shape, as we have done with telephones, bicycles and other evolving forms?

    Thanks for a fascinating post.


    1. Roger Dooley says

      Adam, I suggested $2 because a typical compact fluorescent sells for that or less now in the US, at least for the most common sizes. It could be higher, of course. I’d continue to make incandescent bulbs available, but with a tax that offsets, or more than offsets, the price difference. If the green alternative is both cheaper at time of purchase and saves money in the long run, the only people who buy incandescent would be those that truly need them.

      Right now, no such tax exists and many people in the US choose ultra-cheap incandescent bulbs to save immediate cash or because they don’t expect to use the bulb long enough to recoup the cost difference. It’s a valid decision at the personal level, but at the macro level it means a lot of wasted energy.

      I don’t know why politicians don’t use tax policies more effectively. Moral persuasion (“Buy green products, it’s good for the planet.”) works only for a small segment of the population, and banning products means that some needs won’t be met.


  3. Anonymous says


    Incandescent light bulbs have an effect analog to placebos, but for insights. A cultural placebo for boosting creativity.

    And, yes, I am convinced, any symbol of creativity should trigger the same effect.

  4. Adam Brtnik says

    Hi Roger,

    firstly i want to thank you for all your articles. They are great. Btw. I am from the Czech republic (country next to Germany), so now you can imagine what an impact your blog has 🙂

    I want to add something to the topic “Illegality of incandescent bulbs in Europe”. In fact they are not phased out so much in Europe, like in European union. Maybe there is no difference in it for people in USA, but I perceive it other way. When you say Europe I imagine seperate countries with they own culture, language a LAWS. When you say EU i imagine bunch of bureaucrats in Belgium, who say: “It would be fun to make incandescent bulbs illegal, lets see what happens” And from day to day 500 mil. people cant use them. But probably thats not topic for that page. Sorry 🙂

    What I wanted to say is that 20 minutes ago I read an article about a guy from Germany, who evaded that law by starting selling bulbs like a source of heat and not light which is not illegal. He sells them for 1,69 Euro (that could be approximately equal to 2 bucks :-))and via 3 days he sold everything off. Nice.

    CU guys

  5. Betsy says

    Very interesting, I also wonder if an image of a light bulb would work to spark creativity. Perhaps I will frame one and hang it above my desk. Either way, I just added light bulbs to my shopping list.

  6. Ryan says

    I wonder if there’s a market for fake incandescent light bulbs? I like the idea of one that is foam so you can squeeze it in your hands. Or one made of a material that allows you to write on it with a whiteboard marker.

    I also wonder if we could re-associate our creative mindset with something else which we tend to always have on us such as our watch or a particular card we keep in our wallet. This would be more practical.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Actually, Ryan, I’m pretty sure they sell the foam ones as a promo/advertising item. I have no idea how a fake bulb would work, but I’d guess the more “iconic” it is, the better. Of course, all viewers may not have the same mental image of Edison’s bulb, or a bulb creativity symbol.


  7. […] a photo or poster of a light bulb above your desk. In this instance lateral thinking is stimulated by the image, not the actual […]

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