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Since the mid-nineteenth century creativity has become increasingly recognized as an extremely valuable natural resource. It plays a role in cultural evolution, innovation, and virtually all societal change. It also plays a significant role on an individual level, contributing to psychological health, learning, and adaptability, as well as to artistic and scientific endeavors. Creativity is not easy to define, in part because it plays such diverse roles.
When defining creativity most people agree that originality is necessary but not sufficient for creativity. Yet creative things are more than merely original; they must also be fitting, solve a problem, or have some sort of value or aesthetic appeal. This is especially easy to see when creativity is put to use solving problems, for then the creative solution is an original one that also solves the problem. Yet many creative activities and behaviors do not depend on problem solving. Sometimes, creativity is self-expression.
Creativity may also be distinguished from problem solving by defining it to include problem finding, which must occur before a solution is attempted. Problem finding may involve problem identification (recognizing that there is a problem at hand) or problem definition and redefinition (changing a problem such that it can be solved). The German physicist Albert Einstein (1879– 1955) and many other unambiguously creative individuals have pointed to problem finding as more important to creative achievement than problem solving.
Definitions of creativity are sometimes debated because it can be difficult to separate self-expression from problem solving. This ambiguity is apparent in the arts, where self-expression is artistic performance; yet artists may be solving problems of technique or solving problems in the sense of finding the best way to express themselves. It may even be that there are preconscious processes at work and the artist is dealing with a problem, even if the artist him- or herself is unaware of the origin or exact nature of the problem. Engaging in artwork can sometimes be an attempt to clarify one’s thinking and feelings.
Researchers agree that creativity is tied to motivation. Studies of eminent individuals, as well as investigations that recognize the wider distribution of creative potential, confirm that creativity does not just occur. People work at it, are interested in it, and intentionally nurture or utilize it. Although some creative achievements have been extrinsically motivated, and the creator interested in fame, money, or some sort of reward, it appears as if the vast majority of creative actions are motivated by intrinsic interests. In fact, when an individual is intrinsically interested to perform in a creative fashion, extrinsic incentives can undermine and lower the eventual creative output. Intrinsic interest is also tied to the creative process in the sense that individuals may be more capable of considering a broad range of options and more capable of finding original insights when extrinsic pressures do not distract them.
Personality studies often include intrinsic motivation as one of the core characteristics of creativity. Other relevant personality characteristics include a wide range of interests, autonomy, openness to experience, and nonconformity. Frequently humor and introversion are tied to creativity, but there is much more variation with these two character traits. Some creative domains, such as the performing arts, preclude introversion. The most widely recognized domains that include creativity are linguistic, mathematical, musical, and scientific, though some theories also pinpoint bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal domains. Contemporary research has supported an everyday domain, which includes original and adaptive behaviors used in daily life (e.g., when driving, cooking, and conversing).
It is not uncommon for social scientists to also include seemingly unhealthy characteristics in the list of personality traits that are related to creativity. Nonconformity can be considered one such trait, in the sense that an individual can have excess nonconformity and thereby be alienated from social activities. Another common example of a potentially unhealthful tendency involves affect, and in particular mood disorders. These are frequently observed in eminent creative individuals, and there are reasons to believe that mood swings can facilitate the creative process. Mood disorders contribute to the long-standing and widely recognized stereotype of the mad genius or the highly eccentric creative person.
Another characteristic that may contribute to the creative process involves the capacity to tap one’s unconscious. The Swiss psychologist Carl Jung (1875–1961) emphasized the creative individual’s capacity to utilize unconscious material in an effective manner, saying that “the ability to reach a rich vein of such material [from the unconscious] and to translate it effectively into philosophy, literature, music, or scientific discovery is one of the hallmarks of what we call genius” (1964, p. 25). He also concluded that “completely new thoughts and creative ideas can also present themselves from the unconscious— thoughts and ideas that have never been conscious before. They grow up from the dark depths of the mind like a lotus and form a most important part of the subliminal psyche” (p. 25).
For Jung, material from the unconscious often takes a symbolic form. Some symbols are widely shared, as is implied by Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious. Jung’s view of creativity and the unconscious is entirely consistent with late-twentieth-century views of incubation and its role in creative thought. Biographies of famous creators often describe how good ideas and insights depend on this kind of incubation and only become conscious through sudden insight, often described as the “a-ha!” moment. On the other hand, in 1988 the psychologist Howard Gruber demonstrated that sudden insights are not all that sudden; instead they are protracted and require time and energy. The appearance of the insight is sudden, but the thinking that led up to it is not. However, because insight is an unconscious process, one is not necessarily aware of the work involved in bringing it about.
Programs and Techniques to Enhance Creativity
Many programs and techniques have been designed to encourage and enhance creative potential. Some techniques focus on very specific tactics that can help the individual break mental sets, question assumptions, become more flexible and original, shift perspectives, and produce original insights. Other programs are formal educational efforts and parts of programs for gifted and talented children, which depend heavily on tests of creativity. The most common test utilizes the concept of divergent thinking, which involves performing open-ended tasks that produce a large number of ideas or answers, many of which are divergent or remote. Divergent thinking tasks are statistically independent from convergent thinking tasks (which yield one correct or conventional answer), meaning that children who produce many original ideas may not be the ones who have high intelligence quotients (IQs), and vice versa. Divergent thinking is only moderately predictive of real-world achievement, however, probably because many other factors play a role in the creative process. Intrinsic motivation is an example of one of these other influences on creative work. An individual needs more than the capacity to produce ideas and think in an original fashion; he or she also needs to be interested in doing just that, and perhaps also have the temperament to be unique and unconventional.
Educational programs targeting creativity assume that creativity is widely distributed in the human population. Because creativity is a multifaceted personality trait, existing educational programs and existing tests of creative potential may not fully capture the range of possible creative expressions, nor even the multidimensional nature of the creative process.
- Gruber, Howard E. 1988. The Evolving Systems Approach to Creative Work. Creativity Research Journal 1: 27–51.
- Jung, Carl G. 1964. Man and His Symbols. New York: Dell.
- Runco, Mark A. 2004. Creativity. Annual Review of Psychology 55: 657–687.
- Runco, Mark A. 2006. Creativity: Theories, Themes, and Issues San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
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