Does brainstorming work? What does the data research say?

The method of brainstorming was invented in 1942 by Alex Osborn, founder of the company BBDO. The goal is to remove the threat of criticism from team work.

It is consiedered as a common sense that brainstorming works. However, there are many effects that can hinder this style of creative teamwork:

  • Groupthink
  • Introverts not willing to speak up
  • Fear of criticism, even if no criticism should be done
  • Some people ted to steal the show
  • Social loafing
  • „Serial thinking“ instead of „parallel thinking“ – one idea at a time only

📗 What do books say?

In the best-selling book Sprint, the author working at Google Ventures say that based on their experience they eliminated brainstorming from their design sprints and replaced it with individual work followed by discussion about the things people created.

The book Quiet-power of introverts quotes some studies that showed that individual creative work yields more ideas and better ideas as team work. For example:

Osborn’s breakthrough idea has only one hitch: group brainstorming doesn’t really work. One of the first studies to prove this fact was conducted in 1963. Marvin Dunnette, a psychology professor at the University of Minnesota, gathered forty-eight researchers and forty-eight advertising executives. In all cases, they were men and employees of Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing (otherwise known as 3M, inventors of the Post-it note). He asked them to engage in both individual and group brainstorming sessions. Dunnette believed that managers would benefit from group processes. For the researchers, whom he considered to be more like introverts, he was less confident that they would benefit from group work. Dunnette divided each group of forty-eight men into twelve groups of four. Each group of four was given a problem to solve with brainstorming, such as the advantages or disadvantages of being born with an extra finger. But at the same time, each person was given a similar problem to solve individually by brainstorming. Then Dunnette and his team tallied up all the ideas and compared the ones generated by the groups to the ones generated by people individually. To avoid comparing apples to pears, Dunnette put each individual’s ideas together with those of three other individuals, as if those individuals actually formed a group of four. The researchers simultaneously measured the quality of the ideas, giving them scores of 0 to 4 on a „probability scale.“ The results were unambiguous. Men in twenty-three of the twenty-four groups produced more ideas when they worked alone than when they worked in a group. At the same time, they produced ideas of equal or higher quality when working individually. And the advertising executives were no better in a group than the introverted researchers by all measures. Forty years of research have since been conducted that has reached similarly startling conclusions. Studies have shown that performance deteriorates as group size increases: groups of nine produce fewer ideas and worse ones, compared to groups of six, which in turn are worse than groups of four. „Scientific evidence shows that business people must be crazy to use brainstorming groups,“ wrote organisational psychologist Adrian Furnham. „If you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity and performance are the highest priority.“

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain, 2012

✨ I used AI to scan scientific papers

Popular books are good resource, but they have tendency to cherry-pick studies that support authors‘ claims. Let’s try something neutral:

I used the tool that provides AI summary of academic papers.

I asked this question:

💬 Does brainstorming give better results than people working individually?

It found several studies. What is the summary? Results are mixed, but mostly in favor of individual, rather than group ideation:

  • Most research shows that individual brainstorming yields to more and better ideas than group brainstorming.
  • People feel better about their performace in brainstorming, even though they would get better results working alone.
  • Maybe it depends on the brainstorming question. For some questions, researchers found that brainwriting works better (like finding alternate uses)
  • Studies show that brainwriting works better than brainstorming. Some studies show that brainwriting can be even better than individual work.

Lets look about detailed studies and what they found:

Brainwriting works better than brainstorming. Working together feels better than working alone, results are similar. (Gallupe, 1991)

Gallupe, R. B., Bastianutti, L. M., & Cooper, W. H. (1991). Unblocking brainstorms. Journal of Applied Psychology, 76(1), 137–142.

Brainstorming groups have consistently produced fewer ideas than have the equivalent number of individuals working by themselves. These results have been attributed to social loafing, evaluation apprehension, and production blocking in groups. In this study, a new brainstorming technique–electronic brainstorming–that may reduce both production blocking and evaluation apprehension was assessed. Electronic and nonelectronic groups and nominal and interacting groups were compared in a 2 x 2 factorial design. Electronic groups were more productive than nonelectronic groups, but the productivity of nominal and interacting groups did not differ. In contrast, interacting groups felt better about the idea-generation process than did nominal groups. Ways in which electronic brainstorming can reopen a long dormant area of research and application are discussed.

AI summary of the article

Subjects brainstorming in small groups produce fewer ideas than the same number of subjects brainstorming individually. (Lamm, 1973)

Lamm, Helmut, and Gisela Trommsdorff. „Group versus individual performance on tasks requiring ideational proficiency (brainstorming): A review.“ European journal of social psychology 3.4 (1973): 361-388.

This effect is called „Process loss

In the experiments reviewed in this article the subjects are asked to produce ideas that are relevant to a given task request (e.g., possible consequences of a hypothetical event). After describing the specific task material and the performance measures used in the relevant research studies, some analytic background is given by outlining the cognitive resources required in this kind of experimental task and by listing the various factors that may come into play when subjects perform in groups (with discussion) instead of individually. We then review the studies comparing individual and group performance. In all ot these experiments the subjects were asked to work according to the rules of brainstorming, which prescribe that participants refrain from evaluating their ideas. This procedure purportedly results in superior group, relative to individual, performance. However, the empirical evidence clearly indicates that subjects brainstorming in small groups produce fewer ideas than the same number of subjects brainstorming individually. Less clear evidence is available on measures of quality, uniqueness and variety. The discussion considers factors that may be responsible for this inferiority of groups. The role of social inhibition receives particular attention also in terms of suggestions for research. The group-individual comparison we review the existing research concerning factors that may influence group performance on idea-generation tasks.

AI summary

The question matters. For some questions, brainstorming actually improves quality and quantity of ideas. (Goldenberg, 2019)

Goldenberg, O., & Wiley, J. (2019). Individual and Group Brainstorming: Does the Question Matter? Creativity Research Journal31(3), 261–271.

  • Questions like: „How would you improve this“ – individual work works better.
  • Questions like: „Find alternate uses for this object“ – brainstorming works better.

Despite these theoretical accounts that suggest that group brainstorming should lead to cognitive stimulation, as noted above few empirical studies have been able to demonstrate group advantages, and most studies find evidence for process loss. One unexplored factor that could potentially explain the discouraging results in the search for cognitive stimulation in group settings is the role of the question that is asked to prompt brainstorming. 

Article quote

One exception is a widely cited study by Paulus and Yang (2000) that presented participants with the question of alternate uses for a paperclip. Importantly, Paulus and Yang (2000) found that their interacting groups came up with 40 percent more ideas than their nominal groups, a truly atypical result. Therefore, it is possible that one reason why interacting groups were found to be more productive than nominal groups in this study is because it used an alternate uses question.

Article quote

These hypotheses were tested in two experiments using electronic idea exchanges. In Experiment 1, individuals generated ideas about either alternate uses or potential improvements for cars, SUVs, or vans. In Experiment 2, participants brainstormed in response to one of these two prompts in either an interactive group setting (exchanging ideas with two others) or individually (no idea sharing). The results of both experiments showed that alternate uses and improvements prompts indeed differentially affected ideational performance in terms of both idea quantity and quality. The results were also consistent with the well documented “process loss” on the improvements prompt, but the gap between interacting and nominal groups was closed on the alternate uses prompt. Implications for research and practice are discussed.

Article summary

Brainstorming feels better, but individual work brings better performance (Paulus, 1995)

Paulus, P. B., Larey, T. S., & Ortega, A. H. (1995). Performance and Perceptions of Brainstormers in an Organizational Setting. Basic and Applied Social Psychology17(1–2), 249–265.

Employees of a corporation who had undergone considerable training for effective teamwork were asked to brainstorm about a job-relevant issue in groups of four or alone. One half of the groups brainstormed alone first, and the other half brainstormed as a group before brainstorming alone. Participants were also asked to rate their performance and indicate whether they would perform better in groups or alone on a brainstorming task. Consistent with past laboratory research, groups generated only about half as many ideas as a similar number of individuals (nominal group), and group brainstorming led to more favorable perceptions of individual performance. Participants also believed that they would brainstorm more effectively in a group than alone. These results indicate that productivity losses in brainstorming groups are not restricted to laboratory groups. Such losses occur even in groups who work together on a daily basis, have considerable training in group dynamics, and are dealing with a job-relevant issue. The sequence of alone to group brainstorming did not influence overall productivity. The relation of this research to that of facilitated and electronic brainstorming is discussed.


Group brainwriting works better than individual brainstorming (Dennis, 1993)

Dennis, A. R., & Valacich, J. S. (1993). Computer brainstorms: More heads are better than one. Journal of Applied Psychology, 78(4), 531–537.

Research has consistently found nominal group brainstorming (in which members work separately without communicating) to be superior to brainstorming in which group members interact verbally. This article presents the results of an experiment that found the reverse to be true for computer-mediated electronic brainstorming. In this experiment, 12-member electronically interacting groups generated more ideas than did 12-member nominal groups, and there were no differences between 6-member electronic and 6-member nominal groups. The authors attribute these results to the ability of electronic brainstorming to introduce few process losses(production blocking, evaluation apprehension, and free riding) while enabling process gains (synergy and the avoidance of redundant ideas)



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Autor Jiri Benedikt

Trenér dovedností budoucnosti: Design thinking, Lean, Digi skills. Pomáhám lidem tvořit a růst v digitální době. Chodím po horách, lezu po skalách, ležím v knížkách.

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