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When Creativity Sounds Like Coffee

Online music service Songza has more than catchy pop ditties. It has tunes to work and study by. In this category, it offers a channel called In A Busy Coffee Shop. This channel offers audio recorded in a coffee shop, with the kinds of clinking noise and indistinct background chatter that’s often heard in large cafes, though particular words never rise through the din to reach conscious awareness.

coffee soundsDoes it seem odd, or perhaps even wasteful, for Songza to use the Internet to broadcast nothing but indistinct coffeehouse noises?

Actually, there is a thread of justification for the belief that such sounds may be helpful to productivity.

Two years ago, the Journal of Consumer Research published a study by Ravi Mehta, Rui Zhu, and Amar Cheema entitled Is Noise Always Bad? Exploring the Effects of Ambient Noise on Creative Cognition. The study consisted of five experiments, one of which compared the impact of noise in a working lounge area during loud lunch breaks, moderately noisy coffee break times, and quiet times in between. Study participants were offered various choices of products available to purchase, ranging from relatively traditional to relatively innovative. Analysis of the experimental data found that one group of experimental participants selected more innovative products to purchase as the noise in the lounge increased. In this group were those research participants who had scored high in a separate test of interest in innovative behavior. Those who had scored low in this “creativity” test had no such change – no matter what level of noise the low-creativity participants encountered, their interest in innovative products remained the same.

Songza, and the web site Coffitivity, have extrapolated the results of this study to conclude that moderate levels of noise such as the kind that are found specifically in a coffee shop will help people become more creative. What they neglect to mention is that this effect was only found among people who were assessed as more creative to start with, so that uncreative lugs shouldn’t be expected to benefit. Cafe Society is only good for those who have already got a perk on.

There’s also some reason to question the consumer researchers’ judgment that interest in buying innovative products is a measure of creativity or innovative quality within the psyche of a shopper. It could be that people are most interested in buying innovative products as tools of compensation when they are feeling the least ability to summon innovative thought themselves. As the research didn’t ask participants to explain the motivation behind their decisions, there’s a great deal of unanchored assumption taking place in its conclusions.

So, if you’re feeling the need to summon creative ideas from within yourself, you could listen to Coffitivity, or the coffee shop mumble channel on Songza. You might, on the other hand, come up with a more creative solution, such as experimenting with audio settings already available to you, taking notes on your productivity as you sit out on a stoop, in a city park, on a bench in a subway station, or even in a coffee shop, separate from the artificially chatter of online audio streaming services.

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