Alcohol and Creativity: A Pilot Study

Alcohol and Creativity: A Pilot Study
Jesse C. Smith
Georgia Institute of Technology
[email protected]
Teresa M. Smith
IT Consultant
[email protected]
Ellen Yi-Luen Do
Georgia Institute of Technology
[email protected]
creativity, Lori Reisenbichler [10] challenged this view in
two important ways: (i) the ‘creative genius’ is a simplistic
myth; (ii) creativity is enhanced by alcohol consumption.
According to Reisenbichler, creativity does not require
anything other than an average mind and imagination.
In this paper, we describe the design, execution, and results
of a study of the effects of alcohol consumption on
creativity. We are specifically interested in myths
surrounding alcohol and creativity; one’s view of self as a
creative being; and the effects of alcohol on inhibition and
perception of creativity.
One noteworthy finding that this author cites is that alcohol
is consumed more frequently after creative work than after
non-creative work and rarely ever during creative work, as
found in studies by Norlander and Gustafson in 1994 and
Rothenberg in 1990. This finding indicated alcohol was
used as a reward after a hard day at work instead of a
stimulant during the creative process. Also noted,
Rothenberg found that the anxiety of the creative process
leads many authors to drink.
Author Keywords
Creativity, alcohol, social, interaction, design, sculpture,
drawing, prose, poetry.
ACM Classification Keywords
H.5.2 [User Interfaces]: Theory and methods. H.5.0
On the other hand, Beveridge & Yorston [1] romanticize
alcohol, relying on personal accounts of famous artists and
authors. This approach from perception leads to a uniquely
introspective, challenging viewpoint on creativity.
However, they caution in their conclusion that perhaps
alcoholism and creativity are correlated with some other
factors, perhaps a genetic or behavioral predisposition to
depression, alcoholism, and creativity.
General Terms
Design, Experimentation.
Always remember that I have taken more out of alcohol
than alcohol has taken out of me. – Winston Churchill
People often remark that they think they are more creative
when they drink alcohol. We wondered about the actual and
perceived effects of alcohol consumption on individual
creativity. There is a general opinion of increased creativity
and decreased inhibition while under the influence of
alcohol. Does this translate to a better creative output?
Stephen King, in his autobiography On Writing, devotes
some thought to his own struggles with alcoholism and
drug abuse. He has a very dim view of alcoholic authors,
referring specifically to Hemingway, Thomas, and F. Scott
Fitzgerald. He notes that their claims that drugs and alcohol
help take the edge off, “are just the usual self-serving
bullshit…Hemingway and Fitzgerald didn’t drink because
they were creative, alienated or morally weak. They drank
because that’s what alkies are wired up to do” [5].
To address the ‘creativity myth,’ that of a lone writer or
creative genius fueled by liquor, in this paper we review
relevant literature in the following section and then present
a small-scale pilot study to investigate the effects of alcohol
on creativity. Is it true that most people are only capable of
average creativity or none at all? Can people accurately
gauge their own creativity? Does alcohol increase creativity
or simply the perception of creativity?
Bourassa and Vaugeois conducted a study on the effects of
marijuana on divergent thinking in creativity. They defined
several important factors in divergent thinking: “(a)
ideational, associative, and verbal fluency; (b) spontaneous,
adaptive flexibility; (c) originality; and (d) elaboration” [2].
Using Torrance’s Tests of Creative Thinking [2, 11], they
concluded that marijuana use produced no positive effects
in novice users and actually reduced divergent thinking in
regular marijuana users [2].
Dylan Thomas. Ernest Hemingway. Jackson Pollock. These
names conjure up images of the creative loner. Often a
complete mess, this troubled genius can always be found in
the company of liquor [1]. In an expansive treatise on
In the expansive and comprehensive Encyclopedia of
Creativity, Plucker and Dana address many facets of the
relationship between drug use (including alcohol) and
creativity: popular beliefs, experimental findings,
methodological concerns in existing experiments, and the
possibility that creativity actually leads to drug use in
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certain cases. They conclude that alcohol has at best no
effect on creativity and at worse a negative effect [9].
To summarize the Norlander and Gustafson findings, it
appears that creativity is enhanced by alcohol during the
incubation and illumination phases, not affected during the
verification phase, and hampered during the preparation
phase. This suggests that alcohol may not be universally
detrimental to creativity if consumed during certain times.
Researchers Norlander and Gustafson applied Wallas’ [12]
four-stage model of creativity (preparation, incubation,
illumination, and verification) in a novel series of
experiments [4, 6-8] designed to gauge the effects of
alcohol on each stage of creativity. In the first study, they
studied the preparation phase: the application of a
“persistent intellectual effort over time and ability to reason
deductively” [4] in order to generate a creative work. In the
study, three groups (control, placebo, and alcohol) were
formed from 42 men and women who were asked to
complete tests measuring deductive reasoning and
persistent effort. Both the alcohol and placebo groups “were
impaired with respect to persistent effort” [4] and the
alcohol group showed reduced deductive reasoning. This
indicated an overall negative effect on creativity.
Interestingly, it also indicated a perception effect: those in
the placebo group who thought they may be under the
influence of alcohol began to act as if they were under the
influence: a placebo effect.
After reviewing these perspectives and findings, we debated
creativity as a concept, in order to determine what aspects
of creativity on which we would focus. We drew heavily
from Gardner’s multifaceted analysis of creativity [3],
though we disagree with the findings: creativity should not
be defined by experts in the field or the popularity of the
resulting art or product. Rather, the inherent creativity of a
work rests in the opinions of the artist. Any external,
imposed ruling on the creativity of a work is limiting,
stifling, and fickle. What of the artist who is not recognized
in her own day, only to be ‘discovered’ later? The creativity
of the works have not changed, only the tastes of the
community. Many great artists will attest that they do not
care for the opinions of others, since they know the merit
and worth of their own works.
In the second study, Norlander and Gustafson measured the
effects of alcohol on the incubation phase, where incubation
is defined as recurring notions which undergo continual
modification when one is not focusing on the creative act
[7]. The results were quite different from the first study:
“the participants in the alcohol group produced significantly
more incubations in their diaries and significantly higher
levels of originality” [6].
This distinction between authorial and external creativity is
separate from the established psychological/personal
creativity, in which a person may create something new to
them, and historical creativity, in which an idea is produced
which has never before been produced. We choose to define
the valuation of creativity simply as a private, introspective
In the third study, Norlander and Gustafson noted that most
alcohol use in the context of artists and creators occurs
during the incubation phase and after the creative act [7]. In
the study, they used a similar experiment design as the 1994
study to analyze the effects of alcohol on the verification
phase of the creative process. They chose painting a picture
based on a poem as the test. The verification phase occurs
after sketching and involves secondary effects such as
handicraft and motor impairment [7]. The results were
mixed: while alcohol consumption did not affect originality,
it did affect handicraft ability: those participants under the
influence or using a placebo tested lower in the ability to
paint. This seems logical, as motor impairment is a sideeffect of alcohol consumption. The placebo results can be
attributed to the placebo effect noted in the first study.
In this spirit, we developed a ‘creativity game’, in which
participants would create various small artistic works while
drinking measured amounts of alcohol. Each participant
would then rate the creativity of each of their own works at
the end of the experiment and again when they were sober.
We felt it was important for the participants to rate
themselves individually as opposed to competitively. This
was communicated early in the experiment to discourage
feelings of inadequacy and encourage camaraderie. Our
hypothesis was that as the alcohol affected each participant,
he or she would begin to lose inhibition and take more
creative risks. We were also interested in determining
whether the creators would rate their works differently
when inebriated than when sober.
In the final study, Norlander and Gustafson studied the
illumination phase, during which “a thought achieves
sufficient success or stature in order to break into
consciousness” [8]. The experiment followed the design
elaborated previously. A group of 21 authors and 21 nonauthors took a figural fluency test, which measures
nonverbal mental flexibility. The results were interesting:
flexibility of thought was lower but originality was higher
in the alcohol group. Authors and non-authors were
compared and the results were the same [8].
This study was designed iteratively, with several smallscale dry runs over the course of a month. Many formats for
artistic expression were posited, including sculpture,
drawing, painting, singing, musical performances, and
poetry and prose in several formats. In trying to determine
novel and interesting activities in which people could be
creative, we were inspired by several games. CraniumTM is
a board game in which each player tries to progress around
the board by successfully completing activities such as
sculpting, humming, drawing, and charades. We
incorporated the sculpting and drawing activities into our
experiment. We play an impromptu game from time to time
in which we create 10-word science fiction stories. The idea
is to create an entire story or idea using exactly ten words.
We were also inspired by a game called RorschachTM, in
which players attempt to analyze each other using inkblots.
Ink blots were chosen because they were found in our
previous experiences to reliably provoke mental
associations and interpersonal discussion. We set up a
context of topics for the participants and showed Rorschach
ink blots as prompts for other rounds. This decision was
fruitful, as we found later (see Results).
After careful planning and iterations, we selected five
activities for the game play. They are sculpting, drawing,
poetry, 10-word prose, and movie plot:
After several iterations and consultations with colleagues,
we developed the following format for the game.
Sculpting. Participants are asked to sculpt with their
putty based on a given topic. Each of the resulting
creations were photographed and recorded.
Drawing. Participants are asked to draw in their
notebooks. A topic is given or a simple shape (prompt)
is presented for each participant as a stimulus.
Poetry. Participants can choose to compose a short
poem, haiku, limerick, or sonnet. A Rorschach ink blot
is shown as a stimulus.
10-word prose. This fun format presents a challenge to
the participant: compose a piece of prose from a choice
of three genres (for example, in round three,
participants could choose between science fiction,
western, and horror) in exactly ten words.
Movie plot. Participants must create a movie title and a
short plot summary. A choice of two possible topics is
Once all of the participants have arrived, one experimenter
explains the background, goals, and instructions for the
game. Each participant reads and signs a consent form
explaining the risks and benefits associated with the
experiment. They also received a notebook for writing and
drawing, a tub of putty for sculpting, and a questionnaire.
The questionnaire asks three questions:
How do you rate your creativity?
In which forms are you creative? (Examples:
sculpture, prose, interpersonal)
How does your creativity change when you drink
We made an exhaustive list of potential topics and
categories for each type of activity (sculpting/drawing and
writing) and worked through each topic, category, and task
to determine the following criteria:
Could it be completed in a short period of time?
Could it spark the interest of most participants?
We used these questionnaires to draw comparisons between
individuals’ views of their own creativity and their
perceptions of the effects of alcohol on creativity.
Was it abstract enough to encourage creativity, without
being so abstract that it hindered creativity?
Was there enough variety in the chosen topics?
It is stressed that each participant will be ultimately
responsible for his or her own safety; while the
experimenters will be watching for signs of inebriation or
safety concerns; no person knows the tolerance of another.
Participants are urged to stop drinking once they are
moderately drunk in their own opinion. Participants are also
reminded that they may stop drinking or participating at any
time, for any reason, with no questions asked.
We pared the original list down to twenty five activity
possibilities that fit the criteria. Generally, rounds proceed
in the following sequence: sculpt, draw, and write. Thirteen
rounds were played during the experiment out of the
twenty-five pre-selected possibilities (in the form Activity –
The first round is a benchmark in which participants do not
drink while playing the game. In the first round,
participants were asked to sculpt food with their putty.
Subsequent rounds began with a ‘Jell-OTM shot’, rum in
gelatin (chosen for homogeneity in consumption between
rounds and participants, and for the ability to meter dosage
quite accurately), followed by a pre-selected activity,
described below.
Sculpt – food
Draw – power animal
10-word – popular fiction, history, or romance
Sculpt – Martian furniture
Draw – supernatural or paranormal
Poetry – Rorschach
Sculpt – scary monster
Draw – dream house
10-word – science fiction, mystery, or western
10. Sculpt or Draw – favorite artist or artistic style
11. Sculpt or Draw – a concept
12. Movie plot – numbers or pigs
had two) but was already quite giddy and at times
unintelligible. The creative output was similarly
unintelligible and focused on the meta-game: he would
often quibble with the rules or format and this was reflected
in the works. Otherwise, the game proceeded quite
smoothly. There was much discussion during the game and
after every round, participants would share their works,
commenting positively and having quite a fun time. Rounds
lasted approximately five minutes each.
13. Prompted drawing – a simple shape is presented for
After the last round, as determined by the general
demeanor and scheduling concerns of the participants (“It is
getting late. I have work in the morning.”), each participant
is asked to write a sentence in their notebook describing
how inebriated they feel. They are then asked to rank each
round’s output from the least creative to the most creative.
It is stressed that the artistic merit is not as important as the
concept, to attempt to remove the bias against skill in
certain art forms. In retrospect, this warning did not
function effectively, as a clear cyclical pattern emerged in
several participants’ scoring, with participants ranking
some art forms over others. For an example of this trend,
see Figures 6 and 7. Note the trend starting at round 4 of the
inebriated scoring (the blue line): rounds 6, 9, and 12, all
writing rounds, received higher scores than their neighbors.
A similar pattern occurred in participants 06, 07, and 09.
After the experiment, the results were compiled and
individually emailed to each participant with a request for
re-scoring. The previous scores were not shared with the
participants, to more accurately gauge the difference in
perception of creativity between those in an inebriated state
and those in a sober state.
See figures for examples of the creative works. Note in
Figure 2 that the participant is playing with the format.
Sober, the participant gave this the second-highest score. In
Figure 3, participant 06 chose to incorporate both possible
Originally, the experiment was to be conducted in two
parts: a ‘beta’ experiment with a limited number of
participants drawn from a pool of the experimenters’
friends, followed by a more developed experiment with
participants drawn from the Creativity and Design
Cognition class. In practice, logistic and monetary concerns
limited the experiment to the first phase. See Future Work
for the affects of this change.
Figure 1: Participant 02, Round 2 (Draw your power animal.)
A koala bear.
Participants were recruited from our circle of friends
through email, phone, and word of mouth. Eventually, the
pool reached twelve participants and a date was set. The
pool serendipitously served as a surprisingly diverse group
of people representing different occupations, backgrounds,
ethnicities, and self-reported creative potential. However, a
larger control group and better random sample would have
helped experiment validity.
There once was a Viking from Peru
Whose limerick would end on line two.
And he didn’t quite scan properly
Or count well either.
Figure 2: Participant 05, Round 6 (Rorschach poetry,
participant chose limerick.)
Title: Pork
We provided the materials, snacks, and alcohol. Participant
04 provided the location. Even though the experimenters
expected a reasonable attrition and experimental error rate
of 25%, we were surprised to have only thrown out one
participant’s data. Participant 10 is an Emergency Medical
Technician who frequently picks up extra shifts and
therefore had been awake for the entirety of the preceding
46 hours. He was supposed to act as a control subject (we
Pig shows ability to “count” by oinking number of
times requested. Pig is actually an acute observer
of human nature and uses his talents to rise
through the corporate ranks to become CEO of a
major investment firm.
Figure 3: Participant 06, Round 12 (Movie plot, topics: choose
numbers or pigs.)
“Oh my!” said the Vicar, “your bosom runneth
over, ma’am.”
Figure 4: Participant 11, Round 3 (10-word romance.)
Figure 8: Participant 03, Round 8 (Draw dream house.)
Figure 5: Participant 08,
supernatural.) A wendigo.
Gun-slinging dueling men forgot to put on their
butt-less chaps.
Figure 9: Participant 09, Round 9 (10-word science fiction,
mystery, or western.) A 10-word western.
After round 9, participants were asked to quit drinking
unless they did not yet feel ‘tipsy’. Many elected to stop
drinking. After the 13th round, everyone agreed that it was
too late in the night to continue playing. All participants
were thanked for their time, and they scored their creations
before they departed. Participants 02, 05, and 08 did not
understand the instructions and rated their works in the
range of 1 to 10, non-uniquely (i.e., they gave several works
a score of 4, and some scores were not represented). These
scores were later normalized. Two days after the
experiment, the works were emailed out to respective
participants for re-scoring and comments. It took two weeks
for responses to trickle back in. Comments were mostly
positive, with several quite helpful procedural tips and
ideas. Participant 03 lamented the lack of music as an
activity. Participant 09 reported feeling more creative as the
night progressed. Many participants noted that they did not
feel drunk that night at all and offered suggested alternative
forms of alcohol delivery.
Figure 6: Participant 07, Round 13 (Prompted Drawing.)
Capricorn rising.
We did not attempt exhaustive quantitative analysis of the
data because our sample size was small. We therefore
decided to draw simple qualitative inferences from the data.
Instead of focusing on defining creativity as it relates to
alcohol use, we decided to focus on the lessons we learned
relating to experiment design for future work. However, our
overall impression of the trend was positive: alcohol did
appear to improve the creativity of the majority of our
Figure 7: Participant 04, Round 11 (Draw or sculpt a concept.)
One trend we have observed is the ‘cyclical scoring trend’:
participants tend to score some activities higher than others.
For example, participant 09 gave drawings higher scores
than rounds in which they did not draw. See Figures 10 and
11 for an example of this trend. Also note the general
positive slope in figure 10 of the scores as the night
proceeded. This is typical of the responses, with only two
negative slopes among all participants. Roughly half of the
participants’ scores tracked similarly at the end of the
experiment and when they were sober. Of the rest, only two
(see Figures 11 and 12) had strikingly different scores when
sober than directly after play. This may indicate that, at
least among those chosen for this experiment, there is little
difference in the perception of creativity when sober and
when intoxicated.
creativity generally improved over the course of the night.
Alternately, the positive slope could indicate becoming
comfortable with the rules of the activities, getting ideas
from other participants, or experiencing an expectation
effect that creativy increases over time. Note the cyclical
scoring trend, similarity in scoring when sober and
intoxicated, and general positive slope. Participant reported
being “tipsy” at the end of the night, which may be related
to the trends.
To contrast with Participant 09’s graph, note Figure 11.
There are no discernible positive or negative slopes in
either the inebrated or sober rankings but a clear cyclical
scoring trend. Participant 11 exhibited the highest delta
(rating diffenence between inebriated and sober) of any
participant in any round: her first round received her
highest score while inebriated and her lowest when sober
(see Figure 13 for the work). Many of her other scores had
high deltas: rounds 3, 7, and 10 had a delta of 7. When
asked later about these results, she remarked that she had no
idea why they were so different, except that she may have
been influenced by the opinions of the other participants
when originally scoring [Personal Communication].
Figure 10: Participant 09 scoring graph.
Figure 13: Participant 11, Round 1 (Food.) A pear.
Note in Figure 12 the relative absence of cyclical scoring
trend but marked disparity in scoring when sober and
drunk, and total reversal of slope when sober. The
participant reported being “moderately drunk”, which is a
possible explanation for the scoring disparity.
Figure 11: Participant 11 scoring graph.
In the questionnaire, half of the respondents described their
creativity as “above average”, with one “exceptional”, one
“below average”, and two “random”. All of the participants
selected at least one form of creativity, with many choosing
multiple forms. “Arts and Crafts” received the most
selections, at five. This led to an expectation that higher
scores might happen on the sculpting activities. The results
however did not lead to a clear indication as such.
Responses to the last question (How does your creativity
change when you drink alcohol?) indicated that many (four
respondents: 04, 06, 07, and 08) did not know how alcohol
affected their creativity. Coincidentally, most respondents
noted after the experiment that reviewing their works when
sober made them feel more creative than they previously
indicated. Perhaps this is an indication that they under-
Figure 12: Participant 05 scoring graph. Observe the graph in Figure 10. Participant 09’s inebriated
and sober slopes are positive. This implies a belief that
report creativity due to low self-esteem or modesty? This
would make an interesting research question, though it is
beyond the scope of this paper.
Another interesting finding was the inebriation of the
participants: the alcohol was apparently not potent enough.
Only two participants reported being more than tipsy:
Participant 02 was ‘lightly drunk’ and 05 was ‘moderately
drunk’. In the future, the experiment either must proceed
through the rounds at a quicker pace or the alcohol must be
presented in a different form (shots?). Another option is to
spread the experiment out over a longer period of time, and
encourage participants to move around between rounds,
which can enhance the feelings of inebriation without
requiring more alcohol. Careful considerations and trials
must be taken to address safety and efficiency concerns.
Norlander and Gustafson addressed this problem by
administering 1 ml of 200-proof alcohol per kg body weight
to each participant [4, 6-8]. In their experiments, this
resulted in an average BAC of 0.08, or moderately drunk.
For future work, we would measure the BAC of participants
over the course of the experiment to determine the efficacy
of the alcohol. An in-depth study could be conducted of
'creative people' who regularly drink during the creative
process. If we ask them to stop drinking for a week and
then interview them to understand how they feel about their
creative expression, their responses might reveal some
interesting insights.
Most participants had an accurate opinion of their creativity
level at the beginning of the experiment. There was one
notable exception, though. Participant 09 indicated having
Below Average Creativity in the questionnaire, which was
the lowest of any participant. However, she quickly and
effectively performed each task and as the night progressed
she began showing them off with enthusiasm. She seemed
very pleased with her creations and they were always well
received by the other participants.
Scheduling, preparing, and refining the experiment was an
intense process. We were pleased to receive many tips from
our colleagues and the participants about how to improve
the game play logistics. We would like to engage at least 30
participants in future iterations of this experiment. This will
allow the experimenters to draw more substantive
conclusions and perform quantitative analysis. We could
also conduct a round-table discussion format instead of
individual scoring.
One reviewer of this paper suggested that we should host a
drinking game session during the Creativity & Cognition
conference. Such an experience could provide interesting
insights, especially with the conference participants being a
highly intelligent population of researchers and artists. A
sponsorship from a local brewery or alcohol appreciation
club might help to make this a reality. In a different
direction, a joint sponsorship by a fraternity and a sorority
house might provide a male/female balanced participant
pool as well as providing their own alcohol. This idea may
not be ethically sound, as ‘Greek’ life is already tainted by
the specter of alcoholism and irresponsibility. However,
such an experience may provide a positive example of the
correct usage of alcohol and also de-mystify the romantic
notion of alcohol’s association with creativity.
In summary, this paper presents a viewpoint on the effects
of alcohol consumption on creativity and uses self-reporting
as the metric for evaluating creativity, rather than external
experts of popular opinion. We found the general topic of
creativity enhancement through drugs (alcohol being just
one example) fascinating. We have attempted to establish a
clear research paradigm and experimental method. The
results of the initial experiment show promise for future
research. In this project we have stressed the importance of
the 'concept' as opposed to the artifacts, even though most
exercises focus on the creation of artifacts, i.e., drawings,
sculptures, prose, etc. We understand that it may be hard for
participants to separate self-evaluation of creativity (as
demonstrated by the concept) and self=evaluation of the
artwork (as demonstrated by the creation of an artifact).
One solution could be to separate the evaluation into
different categories for 'evaluation of concept' and
'evaluation of artifact'. We note that creativity has a social
dimension, and future work could address this in the game
setup and observation.
We have discussed and considered the alternatives of
changing the format of the game to account for the cyclical
scoring trend noted in the previous section. This
phenomenon is intriguing. Does such a trend indicate that
participants might be more comfortable working in an
individually pre-selected medium or format for the duration
of the game? If so, what will be the impacts of that
selection? If each participant chose their own preferred
media, it would make it harder to compare participants. In
that case, we could use a standardized measure of
creativity, such as: The Torrance Tests of Creative
Thinking [11] as used in [2]; the Kent-Rosanoff Word
Association Test, the Alternate Uses Test, or the Remote
Association Test as mentioned in [8]; the Purdue Creativity
Test as used in [8]; or external judging, as used in [7]. Such
rigorous tests could greatly increase scientific accuracy and
generalizability that could be included in the future work.
We thank our colleagues in the Creativity and Design
Cognition class for their input and ideas, our participants
for their patience and willingness to play our games, and
the anonymous reviewers of this paper for their insightful
feedback and positive comments, in which we hope the
paper had benefited.
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