Come on, Feel the Noise

June 11, 2014

Juliet Zhu, Professor of Marketing at CKGSB, discusses the effect of noise on creativity, in The Economist’s Intelligence Unit Executive Briefing.

Why working in a coffee shop can help you do more.

The popular belief is that silence helps the mind to focus and if you want to get your creative juices flowing, it’s far better to block out all unwanted distractions. But, in fact, for certain tasks – with creativity at the forefront – noise can be helpful.

Everything in our environment – be it noise, lighting, ceiling height or color – has an impact on us, whether we notice it consciously or unconsciously, and none is more important than noise. My co-authors and I stumbled upon this when we were brainstorming in a quiet room and were getting nowhere, so we took a break in a coffee shop and found that we were much more productive than we had been earlier in the quiet room. That got us wondering whether the unique ambiance – with the noise of coffee machines and grinders and orders being placed and customers chatting – was actually making people more flexible or creative in their thinking. So we put it to the test.

In one of our experiments, we recorded different types of noise found in everyday life and then played those soundtracks back in a lab to recreate certain types of restaurant situations for our participants, who were simply told that we were interested in understanding how people perform or think in a given situation. We controlled the other environmental factors and set the noise to three different levels: high – 85 decibels (dB), moderate – 70 dB, and low – 50 dB. We then we gave our subjects what is known as a Remote Association Test (RAT) task, which is typically used to measure creativity, and based on the outcomes, we were able to determine the impact of noise on cognition and behavior.

Each of the participants was given three or four words and was asked to come up with a fourth or fifth word that was related to all of the other words. For example, the target word for “sixteen”, “heart” and “chocolate” would be “sweet”. What we found was that people in the moderate noise context (70 dB) were able to generate more correct answers in a set period of time compared to those in the low or high noise conditions.

If this seems counter intuitive, let me explain. Background noise actually makes people feel a little distracted from their focal task. That distraction causes what we call “disfluency” and it is this that actually frees our brains to think more creatively. When you’re fully focused on a specific task, you become so narrow-minded that you can’t think out of the box. But creativity is all about generating distant associations to the current stimuli and, therefore, generating novel insights. So this “disfluency” created by noise allows you to move away temporarily from the specific task, letting your mind wander and you then start to process at a higher, or more abstract, level.

This process happens very fast and at an unconscious level, but this “mind wandering” then lets your brain come up with alternative solutions to the task at hand. By evaluating how many solutions the participants could come up with within a set time period, we could see how creative their minds were. So a greater number of solutions would indicate a higher level of creativity because the participants were more able to generate distant associations.

To explain the concept of disfluency further, imagine you’re reading a book. It’s likely written in an easy-to-read font like Times New Roman or Arial. But now imagine that I change the font to a type that is actually very hard to read. By doing so, I have created disfluency because it’s hard for you to read letter-by-letter, word-by-word. As a result, you can’t focus properly on the task – in this case, reading – or complete it very quickly. It distracts your attention from the focal task. That’s what we mean by disfluency, and that’s what the noise is doing.

But this is not to say that noise is always your friend. For creative thinking, a moderate amount of noise can be a facilitating factor, but silence is still golden when you are trying to concentrate on a task that is more detail-oriented. If you are trying to memorize something, for example, any amount of noise could cause distractions that would make it harder to ingest what you are trying to remember.

For reference’s sake, a very quiet room would have a noise level of around 40 dB, whereas 90 dB is roughly the noise level of an airplane taking off or jackhammer used on a construction site. On the decibel scale, a 10 dB change in level corresponds to an increase in power by a factor of 10. In our experiments, the moderate level of noise we chose was around 70 decibels, which created a noise context typical of a mall or restaurant, something that people experience on a daily basis.

It’s also important to distinguish between noise, by which we mean unwanted sound, with background music, which can be very pleasant and desirable. Music can actually have a very complicated influence on people’s cognition. What we show is that music can produce what we call semantic associations or referential meanings. To give an example, if a travel agency has a radio commercial accompanied by fast tempo music, typically people will assume that the travel agency is efficient and can handle their concerns quickly. But if the same travel agency has slow music on their commercial, people will naturally assume that the agency is very thoughtful, and can come up with a complicated or unique itinerary. Music can be very powerful in this regard, especially when the verbal information isn’t very demanding and the sound element comes to the fore.

We also had participants evaluate new products and then asked them how much they were likely to adopt these products over more traditional products. We found that people in the moderate noise situations are more willing to try these new products. So it was really through a series of lab and semi-field experiments that we found that noise is not necessarily bad. In fact, a little bit of noise, as long as it’s at a moderate level, can actually facilitate creative thinking.

It was also gratifying to see that, based on our research, a website called Coffitivity was launched, where you can download tracks with titles like “University Undertones”, “Morning Murmur” or “Lunchtime Lounge”, all of which aim to recreate certain environments. The website lets you set up your own coffee shop environment wherever and whenever you want and its featured app was one of the most highly rated by The New York Times in 2013, while the website was selected by TIME for its Top 50 list.

Juliet Zhu is Professor of Marketing and Co-Director for the Branding Center in Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business (

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