Scientific studies of creativity can be found as far back as the 1930s. There were investigations before that time, but these were tangential to creativity and tended to target invention, imagination, and correlates of creativity rather than creativity per se. Certainly the field has evolved in a number of ways since the 1930s. There are now several academic and professional journals devoted to creativity (see “Journals on Creativity and Innovation”) and fairly well-defined ties to innovation, health, counseling, education, and the neurosciences. There has also been a dramatic increase in objectivity and use of traditional scientific methods to study creativity.
The increased objectivity is apparent in the kinds of research being conducted and published. At one time, around 1960–1970, most of the research focused on the creative personality. Much of this work was being done at the Institute for Personality Research and Assessment by some of the “big names” in the field, including Barron, Helson, and MacKinnon. This research identified domain differences in creativity (e.g., writers differing from architects) and a set of core characteristics that seemed to be functionally related to creativity. These included flexibility, autonomy, nonconformity, wide interests, openness, and intrinsic motivation (Barron 1995). Personality research had to adapt when evidence indicated that traits were not always stable across all settings and environments. The recognition of State X Trait interactions kept personality theory relevant, but other approaches have dominated the creativity research for at least 30 years.
A process approach to creativity is regularly taken, for example, though it has never dominated the research, probably because it is difficult to be rigorous about creative processes. Most creative processes cannot be directly observed and must be inferred, which limits the rigor and objectivity. A common finding in process research is that there are distinct stages and phases. Graham Wallas’ stage theory – with preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification – has been cited for a long time. Research on divergent thinking (see “Divergent Thinking”) also describes a process that can lead to creative ideas and solutions, and it has objective features. It points to ideas as the product of thought, for example, and ideas are indeed often involved in the early stages of creative problem-solving. They can be counted in a reliable fashion, which means they represent objective data.
Two other approaches to creativity are more amenable to objectivity and rigor and as a result have become prevalent in the research on creativity. One of these focuses on the places (settings and environments) where creativity is likely to be expressed. Early on this research was categorized as “press” research (derived from the concept of “pressure”). Investigations in this direction assess settings and environments for particular supports (e.g., resources, autonomy) and barriers (e.g., evaluations, criticism, rigid methods, conventional expectations) to creative work. Because these are environmental, it is easy to obtain inter-rater reliabilities and to develop objective assessments. The limitation of this kind of research is that it does not really target the mechanism by which creation takes place (see “Parsimonious Creativity”). The emphasis on the environment and setting means that only the influences on the actual creative process are recognized, so explanatory power is limited.
The other popular and fairly objective method looks to products of the creative process. These may be inventions, designs, scores, works of art, patents, publications, and so on. Clearly these can be objectively studied; they are concrete and are easily counted. In fact, it is relatively easy to obtain measures of the quality of products by looking at social reactions to and use of each product. In the case of publications, for example, citations are used as proxies of publication quality, the idea being that only outstanding publications will receive large numbers of citations. Similarly, high-quality patents, inventions, and designs will lead to notable sales, and high-quality works of art will sell for large amounts of money and are frequently reproduced in books and exhibits.
The emphasis on such social reactions to products led to a related line of research that examines how creative things (and people) change the way that others think. The assumption here is that creative things must have a social impact. They are, as Dean Keith Simonton has argued, “persuasive.” The extreme view is that social attributions of creativity are required of all creativity and that there is no creativity without social recognition. This is sometimes called the attributional approach to creativity, for the focus is on the attributions given by audiences and judges. One intriguing suggestion in the attributional research is that creators should devote some of their time to impression management, given that creativity depends on the reactions to new ideas. This suggestion has been criticized because it implies that the creator puts time into activities (i.e., impression management) other than the creative work per se (Runco 1995).
The product approach to creativity and the view that creativity requires social recognition both suffer from the same problem as the research on places and environments: there is no real explanation for how a new idea or insight comes into being. In a word, there is no mechanism, and without such a mechanism, the creation (which brings something new into being) required by creativity is not really explained nor even understood. Relatedly, in both cases, for both product research and that focusing on social judgment, research focuses on the end result of the creative process rather than the creative process itself.
New Theory of Creativity
Not long ago a new theory was proposed. It was a reaction to the overemphasis on products, social recognition, and social attributions of creativity. Its focus is on the individual who actually creates and on the processes used by that individual. This theory was developed specifically to shift the emphasis away from the results and products of creativity, and away from mere influences on creativity, back to the creation itself. As such it rejects assumptions of the product, place, and persuasion approaches, summarized above. It is certainly not a personality perspective, also summarized above, because it does not focus on traits. This theory is focused on (and labeled) “personal creativity” because it de-emphasizes social processes of all sorts. Its subject matter is intrapersonal rather than interpersonal. In some ways it overlaps with process approaches because it does hold that some sort of personal processes are involved when new ideas and insights are brought into being. There are, however, process theories that include both individual and social acts. The theory of personal creativity is quite clear that social processes do not help in explaining creativity. The reasoning for this is outlined below.
Personal creativity does not entirely dismiss the impact of environmental factors, be they distal (culture) or immediate (home, school, community, or organizational setting). Certainly creativity is influenced by various factors, some social and contextual, but research on personal creativity focuses on the mechanism that is causally responsible for original and effective ideas and insights, not on the impact they may have or the reactions they may elicit from an audience. Mere influences on the mechanism are categorized as such – as mere influences. This is an important point because science must go beyond correlates and influences, especially when the latter are occasional rather than required. Science must be able to “predict and control,” to quote B. F. Skinner, and this means isolating the actual mechanism that underlies creative behavior.
Admittedly, for a realistic view of creative achievement, both personal and social factors need to be taken into account. Note, however, the word “achievement” in that sentence. Such creative achievement does require that a creative idea is shared, validated, and socially recognized. But a huge amount of creativity does not require any of this, and in fact those things (sharing, validating, and socially recognizing) can easily be viewed as part of the reaction to the creativity rather than the creation itself. They are therefore extricable from the actual creative process, though they sometimes follow it. Personal creativity does not require any sharing – it is truly personal. It does not require any social recognition – it is literally personal.
Some personal creativity is shared and is socially recognized. Some personal creativity eventually results in achievement. But the achievement is not part of the creation; it is part of the sharing and social judgment. Note how easily this view can be put into words: There is creation, and then there is sharing, attributions, and social judgment. The creative mechanism is only required by the creation. It is best to use the words “sharing” and “social judgment” for those things that follow the actual creation. Otherwise creativity is conflated with luck, attributions, applications, and other processes that occur after the actual creation and are not a part of it.
You might say that the theory of personal creativity merely defines creativity differently from the way that product and social perspectives define creativity. Both social and personal theories of creativity do recognize the standard definition of creativity, which points to originality and effectiveness as the two requirements creativity, but the theory of personal creativity would use personal norms for both, while social theories, including those falling under the persuasion category, would require interpersonal norms. (In the 1950s Morris I. Stein referred to something like this as frames of reference, with personal norms being internal frames and social norms being external frames.) Social theories of creativity require that the idea or product is original in comparison with some group or population. This creates problems because it begs the question, which norms? Compared to whom? The entire human population? There are additional questions because it would be possible to consider the current human population, or all historical populations, and this ignores historical relativity. It actually gives an advantage to earlier eras since it would have been easier in previous eras to find something that had never before been identified. Historically, normative groups were smaller because the human population was smaller.
The theory of personal creativity views social processes as irrelevant to creativity. Social processes do influence things like which domains are valued in a given time and place and how much support is given for certain kinds of creative behavior. Social influences are suggested by the fact that the era and culture in which the individual is born and is (formally and informally) educated influences the kinds of things the individual may think and largely determines what kinds of opportunities are available to that individual. Consider technological creativity, for instance. It is one of the most popular domains of creativity at this point in time, at least in the industrial world, but 500 years ago there was little if anything to it – at least electronic and digital technology. Yet the availability of domains and topics can be considered to be an influence on creativity, not an explanation for it. Personal processes still need to create something new and useful. Just as the social recognition that may lead to achievement can be extricated from the initial creative act, so too can domain availability, education, and the like can be extricated from the actual creative process. They should be extricated from the explanation of creativity if the idea is to have a scientific explanation that points to a mechanism that can bring new and useful ideas and insights into existence.
As early as 1996, the theory of personal creativity predicted that three specific processes were involved in creativity. The first is largely cognitive and involves the construction of the original meaning. The second involves creative intentions, the idea being that an individual may have the capacity to construct original interpretations of experience but that individual may not be interested in doing so or not and may not intend to do so. The label intentions was chosen so accidental discoveries and serendipitous solutions which appear to be creative would be recognized as lucky and serendipitous rather than creative. The third process involves discretion. This is important because creativity involves more than originality. Recall here the standard definition. It requires not just originality but also effectiveness. Discretion is involved because it insures that new ideas and insights are optimally rather than maximally original. It insures that originality is balanced by effectiveness. It also allows an individual to fit into society. Creative people may be unconventional, contrarian, and rebellious, but they are also members of society. As such they should be creative, but not all of the time.
The theory of personal creativity is compatible with the theory of parsimonious creativity. That is because the theory of parsimonious creativity ensures that the process included in an explanation focuses on creativity. The need for parsimony insures that creativity is not conflated with social recognition, fame, and achievement – things which are sometimes relevant to creativity or relevant to certain expressions of creativity, but are actually results or effects of the creativity. They are extricable from the creative act. To be parsimonious about creativity, the focus should be on the generation of an original and effective ideas and insights – that is on the process by which something new is brought into being. To be parsimonious things which are inextricable from the creativity, including social recognition and impact, though not unimportant, should not be related to creativity as if they are part of the mechanism or a causal explanation of creativity. They are not really a part of creativity. They are parts of achievement and impact.
The theory of personal creativity is quite parsimonious, and parsimony is a good thing for scientific work. The theory of personal creativity is also quite practical. That is because it points to the critical processes and identifies processes that are only sometimes relevant and are really mere influences. Thus anyone wishing to support creativity knows what to target: interpretations, discretion, and the intentions that bring new ideas and insights into being. These should be supported when creativity is the objective. When the objective is, say, impact or recognition, creativity will only tell part of the story, and other things (e.g., self-promotion) may be targeted as well. You might say that the theory of personal creativity allows resources to be used most efficiently, for the support of creative potential rather than for social recognition.
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- Runco MA. Creativity: theories and themes: research, development, and practice (rev. ed.). San Diego: Academic; 2014.Google Scholar