New research suggests that focusing on the “silver linings” of our negative traits can lead to positive results. Researchers call the finding a “silver lining” theory.
Believing that a negative trait is connected to a related positive characteristic can make us more productive in that domain, according to the study.
“People know that a weakness can also be a strength, but these results show that if we actually believe it, we can use these beliefs to our advantage,” says lead author Alexandra Wesnousky, a doctoral candidate at New York University.
The researchers conducted a series of experiments in order to assess the impact of these “silver lining” beliefs. In an initial study, subjects filled out a survey that assessed their personalities by asking the extent to which negative traits they believed they held could also be seen as positive (e.g., conceited vs. high self-esteem).
The majority of individuals endorsed a silver lining theory: when prompted with a negative attribute, most participants readily generated a positive associated trait.
In a second experiment, with a new set of subjects, the researchers focused on the specific silver lining theory that impulsivity is related to creativity. Notably, more than half of participants in a pilot survey saw a connection between “impulsivity” (negative) and “creativity” (positive).
The Silver Lining Effect
In the experiment, subjects took a commonly used personality survey, the Barrett Impulsiveness Scale, which is used to measure impulsiveness. However, in order to ensure the randomness of the study samples, two sets of groups were told they were “impulsive” and two other groups were told they were “not impulsive.”
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Next, the four groups of subjects read one of two mock newspaper articles: one that described scientific findings showing an association between impulsivity and creativity and another outlining scientific findings that refuted such a link.
In this part of the experiment, one “impulsive” group read the story linking impulsivity and creativity and the other “impulsive” group read the story refuting this connection. The two “non-impulsive” groups were also split in this fashion.
In order to test the impact of their beliefs, as influenced by the news article, the subjects then engaged in a creativity task in which they were presented with an object and instructed to generate as many creative uses for it as possible in three minutes.
Their results show that the impulsive group that read the story linking impulsivity to creativity came up with significantly more creative uses for the object than did the impulsive group that read the story disproving this relationship.
In the non-impulsive groups, the results were the opposite: those who read the story refuting the connection with creativity came up with more uses for the object than did those who read the story establishing this linkage, though this was not significant.
About the Authors
Alexandra Wesnousky, an NYU doctoral candidate, is the study’s lead author. The study’s other authors include Gabriele Oettingen, author of the recently released Rethinking Positive Thinking, and Peter Gollwitzer. Both are professors in NYU’s psychology department.
The National Science Foundation and the German Research Foundation supported the work. The study is available in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation
by Gabriele Oettingen.
Based on her groundbreaking research and large-scale scientific studies, Gabriele Oettingen introduces a new way to visualize the future, called mental contrasting. It combines focusing on our dreams with visualizing the obstacles that stand in our way. By experiencing our dreams in our minds and facing reality we can address our fears, make concrete plans, and gain energy to take action. In Rethinking Positive Thinking, the author applies mental contrasting to three key areas of personal change— becoming healthier, nurturing personal and professional relationships, and performing better at work.