Zoom meetings are bad for brainstorming, study shows

A new study has found that hangouts dampen brainstorming because we’re so focused on the face in that box that we don’t let our eyes and mind wander as much.

Staring does not promote creativity. Although it’s indecent to look at someone in real life, it’s to be expected during a video call, the researchers said.

However, when it comes to evaluating these new ideas, such attention, at least in one-on-one chats, seems to make remote meetings slightly better than face-to-face chats, according to a study from Wednesday at Nature magazine said.

The researchers watched as 745 pairs of engineers in five different countries tried to come up with creative ideas for using frisbees or bubble wrap. Those who were in the same room generated, on average, one more idea, which is about 17% more than in remote meetings. And these personal ideas were rated as more creative by outside experts, the study found.

Study author Melanie Brooks, a professor of applied psychology at Columbia University Business School, said it was the result she expected, but not the reason she expected.

At first, she figured it had to be social and physical distance—maybe the two people just didn’t communicate very well, or people didn’t know who was talking when. But several different social bonding tests showed that pairs of remote meetings bonded with each other in the same way as people in the same room.

Then the eyes were taken out. When Brooks tracked eye movement, she found that people in the same room were more likely to look away, to look around. But a couple of remote meetings didn’t.

“They were too focused on a specific task and that narrowed their thinking,” Brooks said in an interview with Zoom.

It makes sense because faces grab our attention, said Georgetown University psychology professor Adam Green, who was not involved in the study.

“Faces are really important to our brains, and we put a lot of emphasis on looking at faces,” said Green, president of the Society for the Neuroscience of Creativity. “When we’re with someone in person, it’s not considered polite to look directly in the face for an extended period of time.”

According to Brooks, remote meetings work differently.

“It’s not that Zoom is bad, everything is worse. It seems that (the problem) is unique to a more productive, creative process,” Brooks said.

When it came time to evaluate these options, the remote meeting engineers chose the best option—as judged by a panel of external experts—slightly more than in person, the study found.

The experiment began before the pandemic and was conducted using WebEx with one company in offices in Portugal, Israel, Finland, Hungary, and India. The results were about the same in different places.

“When I’m brainstorming on Zoom now, I turn off the camera,” Brooks said. She notes that this is no different than talking on the phone, except that she establishes a personal connection, starting with the camera on.

Follow Seth Borenstein on Twitter: @borenbears

The Associated Press Department of Health and Science receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Department of Science Education. AP is solely responsible for all content.

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