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Is inspiration contagious?

  • From inspired to inspiring:
    From inspired to inspiring:  William & Mary psychology professor Todd Thrash recently conducted research that shows inspiration is contagious from writer to reader.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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A quick Google search for the word “contagious” yields a collection of not-so-pleasant news headlines. But a recent study by Todd Thrash, associate professor of psychology at William & Mary, notes that contagion can also be used to refer to the spread of something much sweeter: inspiration. 

“The feeling of being inspired is sometimes presumed to just be a feeling and nothing more,” he said. “But my data indicate that it is consequential. If you are feeling inspired, you are in fact in the kind of state in which you can produce a text that may have a similar effect on other people.”

His study, which was published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in April, is the first scientific study to test this theory. Though the idea, Thrash notes, isn’t new; theorists in the humanities have been hypothesizing about inspiration contagion for centuries.

“One of the main contributions of this work is that it bridges ideas of the humanities with methods of science,” said Thrash, who co-authored the study with Laura Maruskin '10, Emil Moldovan '14, Victoria Oleynick '15, and Will Belzak '17. “People in the humanities have been talking about inspiration contagion but have never had a rigorous way to test their ideas. Meanwhile, scientists have had the methods but haven’t taken on some of these big, timeless questions. So I’ve seen my role as a scientist as connecting these different worlds.”

An inspired endeavor 

Thrash first began pondering the phenomenon of inspiration as a graduate student. His early research involved linking inspiration to creativity, an often debated topic in the humanities, as some argue that creativity is more a product of perspiration, or plain old hard work. While Thrash believes both play a role, the power of inspiration is too significant to overlook.

“Writers who are more inspired report that their ideas came to them more fully formed; they write more efficiently; and they use shorter words — all suggesting a swift articulation of ideas while they are fresh in the mind’s eye,” said Thrash in his study. 

Only recently has Thrash begun focusing on the spread of inspiration from writer to reader, after encountering several hypotheses from poets and theorists dating as far back as Plato, who posited that inspiration flowed from the Muse (the daughter of the goddess of Memory) to poets, to performers, to audiences. 

“There hasn’t really been a way to test this until now, because so many different factors are in play,” said Thrash. “Inspiration could depend on the writer, the reader, and the different personalities of these individuals. I was in a position to get a large sample of writers, a large sample of readers, and was able to make use of new statistical techniques that allow a large number of variables to be taken into account.” 

The science of contagion

Thrash divided his research into two parts, utilizing two groups of around 200 William & Mary students — one to write poetry, the other to read it — and asked each group to self-report their levels of inspiration. The writers were also asked to evaluate factors such as the amount of effort put into their work, variables related to inspiration, such as feelings of awe, excitement and determination, and feelings typically not associated with inspiration, such as nervousness and fear. The readers were similarly asked about their levels of awe and excitement, nervousness and fear, and whether they got “chills” while reading each student’s poem. 

“Awe and chills are both closely related to inspiration,” said Thrash. “The poet Housman said that he knew he had a good idea when he cut himself shaving because if he had an idea while shaving he’d get goosebumps. There’s anecdotal evidence about the role of chills in the creative process but very little research on the topic.” 

Noting the inherent differences in individuals, Thrash also evaluated the personalities of readers, to see whether those who exhibit certain traits were more or less likely to become inspired by a poem. 

“You can explain a lot more of the reader response if you take into account the reader’s personality,” he said. “In particular it’s people high in the trait of openness to experience who are prone to becoming inspired. So we found that the writers who are more inspired write things that are more inspiring to the average reader, but this effect is driven by readers who are high in openness.”

Thrash also notes that, while those who are more open tend to become more inspired by what they read, they’re only inspired if the text is of high quality. Using a panel of advanced English and American literature students, Thrash had each student’s poem evaluated on qualities such as originality, pleasantness, rhythm, insightfulness and clarity. 

“Inspired writers wrote things that were of higher quality across the board, but only certain characteristics then explain why readers are inspired,” said Thrash. “In particular it’s insightfulness and pleasantness. The more inspired writers wrote things that were more insightful and pleasant and these texts were also more inspiring.”

On the other hand, some qualities of poems written by inspired writers had the opposite effect on the reader. 

“Inspired writers generated original ideas, but original ideas weren't inspiring to the average reader. The reason is that when we see something original, we often feel like it’s the property of the person who wrote it,” said Thrash.

Thrash found that the work of writers who reported being inspired during the writing process produced an overall higher quality poem that was more likely to be rated as inspiring by readers than work created by non-inspired writers.

Beyond words

While Thrash’s research focused on poetry, the concept of inspiration contagion could potentially transfer to different types of creative mediums as well and, he notes, the statistical techniques he used here could be used to study inspiration contagion in all of its possibilities. 

“Going back to Plato, he talked about inspiration being transmitted from poets to actors to audiences,” he said. “So that’s not just transmission through the written word but also a person-to-person transfer of inspiration. That’s an interesting concept: If pastors, professors, or leaders of companies were more inspired, would they be more inspiring to their congregation, students or employees? I would suspect the answer is yes in many different areas of life.”