UVA’s Eileen Chou and the “Coffee Shop Effect”

Eileen Chou, Assistant Professor of Public Policy in the Batten school, has chosen an exciting question to answer in her latest research endeavors: “What is it about coffee shops that induces creativity?”

Professor Chou’s research focuses on the organizational, social, and psychological forces that shape individual and group behavior in organizational settings. While living in different parts of the U.S, Chou noticed the growing trend of coffee shops being used as work spaces for professionals and students. The idea of coffee shops being used for more than drinking is far from a new one. Steven Johnson’s TED Talk talks about how “the English coffee house was crucial to the development and spread of the Enlightenment … in part because of what people were drinking there.”

The modern incarnation of the old coffee house is prevalent in modern cities, and the ways in which people behave in and around these institutions of caffeine and ideas is constantly changing. The very notion of picking a noisy, crowded place to do work is a counterintuitive one, says Chou. Through a carefully planned and executed series of experiments, Chou and her team have found that merely being around other people makes us better at certain kinds of creative tasks.

In her latest project, supported by the Darden School’s Batten Institute, Chou, Loran Nordgren of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School, and U.Va. student Marshall Hanbury, Jr. are exploring how working in the presence of other people has an effect on people’s creativity and ability to innovate when given a certain set of problems.

I recently spoke with Chou about two different ways of thinking: divergent and convergent. Divergent thinking is one that involves open-ended answers with no single, optimal solution. Convergent thinking is one where a clear answers or answer(s) could be reached. In a series of experiments, Chou’s research team found that multiple people in a room working in isolation were able to make more risky decisions than people who were merely alone. The presence of other people was enough to indicate a surge in creativity as opposed to work in a solitary environment.

Chou talks about how Marissa Meyer, Yahoo’s CEO, banned people from working from home and how that was supposedly credited with bringing the company up the ranks in terms of product and service quality. Having experimented with the idea of examining the “coffee shop effect,” the next step of Chou’s research will be to test it under different circumstances in terms of space and design.

At OpenGrounds, though there is no coffee shop per se, there is free coffee available from a keurig machine in the back of the space. The decision to call our initiative “OpenGrounds” was an intentional association with both UVA’s campus and coffee shops. Apart from brewing energy in the space, the presence of coffee in a space that revolves around interdisciplinary work and creativity allows people to “be creative alone, together” as Chou puts it.