Remember that blog I wrote about how to work in a coffee shop? It turns out I may have been on to something scientific there. A new study published by the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia has found that creativity actually improves in environments filled with ambient noise—like a coffee shop.
The study’s head researcher, Ravi Mehta, is a Marketing PhD candidate specializing in atmospherics, consumer creativity, and how consumers process information. Ravi and his team conducted a series of five experiments that measured how ambient sound affected the average person’s creative cognition—their ability to come up with ideas more easily. One major test asked participants to come up with new ideas for a new mattress product, or make a list of unconventional uses for conventional objects.
A Little Noise Goes A Long Way
The results found that with just the right amount of noise, creativity was actually better in a noisy environment as opposed to a quiet one. Their research showed that compared to a quiet environment of only 50 decibels (dB) of surrounding ambient noise, creativity was actually enhanced in an ambient environment of about 70 dB. Furthermore, creativity cognizance was hindered in environments where ambient noise exceeded 85 dB.
The study concluded that a moderate level of background noise creates a distraction for your brain that isn’t enough to derail your thought processes. In fact, minor distractions encourage the brain to work around them, resulting in a greater capacity for abstract, unconventional thought patterns. In short, a little distraction can make you more creative.
Putting The Sweet Spot Into Perspective
To put those noise levels into perspective, we can reference a noise source chart from Purdue’s website. 50 dB, what the study calls a “quiet space” is the equivalent of the environmental sounds of “a quiet suburb, a conversation at home,” or the hum of a “large electrical transformer” approximately 100 feet away from the listener.
The 70 dB sweet spot is equivalent to a passenger car 25 feet away from the listener passing at 65mph, freeway traffic 50 feet away from the edge of the road, “living room music,” “radio or TV audio,” or a vacuum cleaner. 80 dB is equivalent to a garbage disposal, dishwasher, “average factory” noise, a food blender, or a freight train passing the listener from 15 meters away.
People don’t normally measure their environmental noise levels specifically, but you can imagine from these examples that your typical coffee shop falls in the 60 to 70 dB range. In fact, “conversation in restaurant” and “background music” are specifically listed as 60 dB.
Coffee Shops Definitely Know This
Customer experience research is a massive part of marketing strategy for larger industries like coffee shops, and these results add to the growing amount of research on what kinds of spaces encourage consumer activity. You can bet that the atmosphere of your average coffee shop is the product of careful observation and consumer research. Coffee shops are designed to actively invite people to stay for a while, and even the ambient sound environment is balanced to provide visitors with this creative sweet spot.
The next time you need to get some creative work done and you’re having a hard time getting your creative juices flowing, maybe a trip to your local coffee shop is in order. I still make a habit of working at my own local brew house at least once a week, and I’m always surprised at how refreshing my trip always seems to be. If no amount of science can cure your writer’s block, though, maybe it’s time to call in the professionals.