Video calls create creativity crash

While many of us have gotten used to Zoom, our brains may need less screen time to boost ideas
29 April 2022

Interview with 

Melanie Brucks, Columbia University


“Hold on, I just need to let the dog out and start the washing machine!” Believe it or not, a civil servant manning a government helpline said that to someone they were helping recently as a reason for needing to interrupt the telephone call. While working from home has had its benefits, some businesses are beginning to question the hidden costs, including lost productivity and, potentially, creativity. A new study, published in Nature, seems to be singing from the same song sheet. Columbia University’s Melanie Brucks compared how well people came up with work-related ideas at either in-person meetings or virtual ones. She told James Tytko what she found. He was eager to hear, first, how she could assign a value to the creative output of the people they studied…

Melanie - We independently assessed these ideas by giving the ideas to outside judges who weren't part of the study. And we asked them to rate each idea on novelty and the other metric is value or appropriateness. So, we can assign a numerical value to each of these ideas.

James - And this is obviously very topical research because people have been using video calling for work since the pandemic hit, and it looks like it's here to stay, at least in part, as we move into life after the virus. And it's also a bit extra topical at the minute here in the UK after Jacob Rees-Mogg, who's a senior government minister, started visiting the offices of his civil servants unannounced in a bid to encourage staff to start working in the office more frequently. Does your research suggest he's got a point?

Melanie - There's a lot of things to consider here. What we're finding is a cognitive cost to interacting virtually. So, people generate fewer ideas and fewer creative ideas when they're engaging in video interaction compared to when they're in the same physical space. I think it's valuable to be in person. That being said, there's lots of value to virtual work, and I would not say that this work suggests that we need to always be in person and there's no reason to do remote work as well.

James - So, it's not unequivocally worse to be working virtually, but did your research lead you to theorise as to why you got the results you did and why that creative spark comes from being in the same physical space as others?

Melanie - We realised that there's a really big difference in shared environment: actually the physicality of how we're interacting. In virtual interaction, the only shared environment you really have is the screen, and this is particularly true now that people blur out their backgrounds. We thought that this shared environment might compel people to look more at the screen, almost be tethered to that screen, because anytime you look away, you're disengaging from the interaction. And so that's what we found: we actually extracted eye gaze and we were able to look at where they were looking - Are they looking at their partner? Are they looking at the surrounding room? People look at their partner almost twice as much when they're interacting virtually, and this explains the negative effect on idea generation because, when you're more visually focused, you're more cognitively focused. When you're tethered to this screen and you're filtering out all of your environment, that actually affects your ability to cognitively wander as well.

James - We're conducting this call over zoom. What are the implications, I suppose, from your study for radio shows like ours?

Melanie -  So first I'll say this is also the value of having virtual communication, that you can speak to people all across the country. That's not something that we should drop just because there might be some negative consequences to interacting virtually. But, what my recommendation would be if you need to interact on a video call, is to do actually exactly what we're doing right now, which is to turn the video off because that will untether you to that screen. Now, you're able to visually wander your environment again, and that's going to lead to more cognitive wandering as well.


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