Creative Desperation

Creative desperation is the fifth of Klein’s strategies in his book Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insight. Creative desperation is the term the Dutch psychologist Adrian de Groot used to describe some of the brilliant strategies that chess players invented when they got into trouble. When the clock was winding down and when they needed to make a move and none of the plausible moves would work, out of desperation they would find an unorthodox line of play that would save them, gambling on something they would never have tried had any of the acceptable moves looked promising.

Most research done in psychological laboratories using puzzles has tried to stymie subjects. Many subjects get stuck and give up. Others struggle feeling lost and then, out of creative desperation have unexpected insights into solving the puzzle. However, creative desperation does happen outside of laboratories and away from chessboards. One of the most amazing examples occurred while fighting a severe forest fire. Wagner Dodge was a thirty-three-old team leader of 15 men. The wind changed and they were caught in a fire moving rapidly towards them. It appeared that there would be no way they could avoid being overtaken and consumed by the fire. Dodge ran ahead and shouted back to his team to do what he was going to do. What he did was to start a fire in front of him. This action made no sense to the rest of the team and was ignored. However, what Dodge did was to clear the ground in front of him. He lay down on ground that had recently been on fire. However, when the advancing fire got to his position it passed him by as there was nothing left to burn. Unfortunately, the remainder of the team was caught by the rapidly advancing fire and perished in the flames.

Another example of creative desperation involves Aron Ralston, an an American mountain climber who was hiking through some canyons in Utah. His story is captured in his book, Between a Rock and a Hard Place. A movie, 127 Hours, was made of his ordeal. He fell into a crevice and his right arm became pinned by a boulder. He was unable to free his arm with his pocket knife. Then he had the insight to see that the boulder need not be his enemy, it could also be his friend and aid his escape. The boulder provided the solid leverage he needed to break the bones in his arm so that he could free it.

Creative desperation need not involve situations that are quite so desperate. Klein relates a story about his office manager. It was her job to get the time sheets from the staff in timely manner so she could fulfill contractual requirements. Klein admits that he himself was typically remiss in submitting his timesheet. Initially the office manager, Cheryl Cain, provided alerts and reminders about the timesheets. Then she tried badgering. Nothing worked. Out of desperation, she tried something nice. She awarded staff with Hershey candy kisses when they submitted timesheets on time. This action achieved a high degree of compliance.

A total of 29 out of Klein’s 120 cases, just shy of a quarter of the cases fit the creative desperation category.

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