Volume 34, No. 10 November 2003

Considering Creativity

"Many artists come from more chaotic environments, which prepares them to create with less structure."

Dean Keith Simonton
University of California, Davis

  Considering Creativity
What exactly is creativity?

Psychologists continue their quest to better understand creativity.

Monitor staff
Print version: page 40

Not all creative people are alike, which makes defining creativity a challenge and assessing it a monumental undertaking.

The traditional psychological definition of creativity includes two parts: originality and functionality.

"You can't be creative unless you come up with something that hasn't been done before," says psychologist Dean Keith Simonton, PhD, of the University of California, Davis. "The idea also has to work, or be adaptive or be functional in some way; it has to meet some criteria of usefulness."

And in the U. S. Patent Office, which approves intellectual property rights for products and ideas born of inventors' creativity, there's a third criterion, Simonton says: The creative idea should not be an obvious extension of something that already exists.

But the study of creativity by psychologists, active since the beginning of the 20th century, has taken that definition and expanded it, complicated it and questioned it.

The personality-creativity connection

There is, for example, a distinction to be made between "little-c" creativity and "big-C" creativity, Simonton says. Little-c creativity, which is often used as an indicator of mental health, includes everyday problem-solving and the ability to adapt to change. Big-C creativity, on the other hand, is far more rare. It occurs when a person solves a problem or creates an object that has a major impact on how other people think, feel and live their lives.

"At the little-c level, creativity implies basic functionality," Simonton says. "And at the big-C level, it's something that we give Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes for."

In addition to this distinction, Simonton notes a difference between the kind of creativity that helps a painter create masterworks and the kind that helps a physicist develop new theories on the origin of the universe. Both types require similar mastery of skills, but personality differences lead individuals to particular pursuits, he says.

"The major criterion is how much restraint there is in the creative process," Simonton explains. "Science has to be constrained to scientific process, but there's a lot less constraint on artists. Many artists come from more chaotic environments, which prepares them to create with less structure."

In the same sense, artists tend to show higher rates of mental illness and related symptoms than the average population, Simonton says, citing numerous empirical studies, including recent work by Arnold Ludwig, PhD, Kay Jamison, PhD, and James Kaufman, PhD (see page 42). "If you look just within the arts, there are styles that are very realistic and more expressionistic--the more expressionistic the art form, the more likely the artist is to have a mental illness," he says.

Motivation and intelligence

There are other components of creativity--domain-relevant skills, quality processes and intrinsic task motivation--according to a componential theory of creativity developed by psychologist Teresa Amabile, PhD, of Harvard University. But Amabile points out that environmental factors such as freedom, support and positive challenges also play a key role in fostering creativity (see page 56). Another important factor in creativity is intelligence, but contrary to beliefs at the turn of the 20th century, it is not the only factor, says Simonton.

In the 1920s, psychologist Louis Terman, PhD, began looking at the relationship between intelligence and creativity. In a longitudinal sample of intelligent children, not all ended up developing their creative abilities, he found. That's when psychologists started to realize more than intelligence was required--also critical is having an ability to see things from a different perspective, Simonton says.

"You need an IQ of around 140 to learn enough physics to be truly creative in it," Simonton says. "But once you have that minimal IQ, there's still something else that must be there for a person to be truly creative."

That "something" still eludes specific definition, but with a renewed APA emphasis on creativity from APA President Robert J. Sternberg, PhD, and a recent name change for Div. 10 from Psychology of the Arts to the Society for the Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts, Simonton hopes more psychologists will join the ranks of creativity researchers.

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