Effects of Prior Knowledge on Generative Tasks
The creation of new ideas plays an important role in the growth of any society. Inventions such as the telephone and automobile have provided the tools for increased levels of communication and widened the access to information. While the modern generation may view these inventions as staples of our society, at the time of their conception they were viewed as revolutionary new concepts. Yet, were they truly revolutionary or were they an extension of prior knowledge? Large proportions of new ideas are based on the properties of an existing concept (Marsh, Ward, & Landau, 1999). Without the concept of the phonograph, for example, we may never have had the benefit of 8-tracks, audio cassettes, or compact discs. These creations, while separate in their levels of advancement, are all based on the initial notion of recorded sound.
Researchers recognize the benefits of prior knowledge as adaptive to survival. The fact that humans are able to learn and apply information from previous experience assists in reasoning, problem solving, and comprehension of our environment (Smith, Ward, & Schumacher, 1993).
Without the use of prior knowledge it would be impossible to advance cognitively. The benefits notwithstanding, the use of prior knowledge also has the potential of limiting, or constraining, the creative process (Marsh, Bink, & Hicks, 1999; Marsh, Landau, & Hicks, 1996; Marsh, Ward, et al., 1999; Smith, et al., 1993). The theoretical construct of structured imagination proposes that new ideas are seldom, if ever, truly "new." It contends that, when faced with the intention of a novel creation, humans search their memory base for a previous, similar experience and then expand or alter that prior solution to fit the current need (Marsh, et al., 1996; Marsh, Ward, et al.,
1999). Whether this retrieval is intentional or not, the features of prior solutions then become a part of the "new" creation, thereby limiting its originality. The purpose of this paper is to provide evidence that the notion of structured imagination is accurate and that the use of prior
knowledge plays a role in the production of novel ideas by inducing constrains on an individual’s creative process.
In 1993, Smith, Ward, & Schumacher conducted a series of experiments to test the effect of previous knowledge on creativity by presenting participants, just prior to a generative drawing task, with examples of others’ creations. Specifically, participants were asked to create creatures that might be expected to live on other planets, but that the creatures must not represent those found on earth. They hypothesized that those who were shown examples of possible creatures just prior to the task would incorporate more...