Apple's corporate image is one of the creative iconoclast; their motto, "Think Different." Their products look great. Artsy people like graphic designers, photographers, and film directors choose Apples.
Does the ad campaign work? Does the average person-in-the-street think of Apple computers as being more creative? A recent study done at Duke University's Fuqua school of business provides some evidence that it does. This research has been all over the newspapers and even on NPR, so you may have already heard the take-home message: research subjects were shown an image of either Apple's corporate logo or IBM's corporate logo, and immediately afterwards they were given a creativity test. The subjects who'd seen the Apple logo scored higher on the creativity test. Ready-made message for news reporters: Apple really does make people "think different". I'm sure Apple's PR department was high-fiving over this free publicity!
But the details of the study haven't been reported at all, and when you look at the details, the message is more complex. First of all, the test used to measure "creativity" has some problems; it's from a research article published back in 1958, and all it asks is "think of as many unusual uses as possible for a brick." (It's called the "unusual uses test".) This is a measure of what creativity researchers call "divergent thinking" and it isn't really what most of us mean when we talk about creativity (see my book Group Genius for more on this). And in fact, no studies have been able to prove that a higher score on divergent thinking tests translates into real-world creative output.
Second, the difference between seeing Apple or IBM was very small. The 219 subjects who saw an Apple logo, on average, wrote down 7.68 uses; the 122 who saw IBM wrote down 6.10. When independent judges rated the creativity of the answers, Apple answers got a rating of 8.44, IBM answers a rating of 7.98. These differences were statistically significant, but it's not hard for small differences to reach statistical significance when you have so many subjects; it's well-known in psychological research that a greater number of subjects raises the significance of the finding.
And furthermore, when the researchers added a third experimental condition -- no brand logo shown at all -- the Apple subjects did not score significantly higher than these "no brand" subjects (they still scored higher than IBM subjects, though).
The researchers later did another experiment where they first measured how much each subject valued creativity -- how much they wanted to be creative. Those who scored low on this measure, who didn't really want to be creative, showed no differences on the unusual uses test with either Apple or IBM logos. But those who scored highly showed a difference, coming up with about 8 unusual uses for the brick in the Apple condition, but just barely over 5 in the IBM condition, and just barely over 5 in the no-brand condition. (And, the independent judges rated the Apple uses as being the most creative of all three conditions.)
One final interesting fact about this study: in the first experiment, the Apple and IBM logos were flashed on the screen for only about 13 milliseconds, so briefly that no one was consciously aware they had seen the logo. This was a subliminal effect. In the second experiment, the one that asked about your motivation to be creative, the subjects actually saw (and manipulated) images of generic-looking computers, with either an Apple or IBM logo prominently displayed on the computer's monitor (or no computers at all, in the no brand condition).
You know how your car always seems to run better after you take it to the car wash? Of course, it runs exactly the same as before you washed it. In the same way, when you use a product that you associate with creativity, you should feel more creative (even though you're probably not). However, discovering that exposure to corporate logos changed their score on a test is intriguing.
I wouldn't call the "unusual uses test" a measure of creativity; but the experiment makes you wonder, nonetheless. Should Apple feel proud about the results of this research? The headline would be very different if it read "Staring at Apple computers helps you think of strange ways to use a brick."