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Characteristics, Creativity as Ability, Relation to Intelligence, Creativity as Process, Relation to Imagery, Relation to Knowledge

Creativity is the ability and disposition to produce novelty. Children's play and high accomplishments in art, science, and technology are traditionally called creative, but any type of activity or product, whether ideational, physical, or social, can be creative.


Creativity has been associated with a wide range of behavioral and mental characteristics, including associations between semantically remote ideas and contexts, application of multiple perspectives, curiosity, flexibility in thought and action, rapid generation of multiple, qualitatively different solutions and answers to problems and questions, tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty, and unusual uses of familiar objects.

Biographical studies of exceptionally creative individuals have uncovered recurring features. Creative individuals typically master a practice or tradition before they transform it. They organize their lives around a network of interrelated and mutually supporting enterprises. They are prolific. There is no evidence for an inverse relation between quantity and quality; instead, the two appear to be correlated. Exceptionally creative accomplishments are complex, evolving outcomes of long-term efforts sustained by high levels of intrinsic motivation, often in the absence of societal rewards.

There are many examples of exceptionally creative individuals who led troubled and turbulent lives and there is widespread belief in a relation between creativity and mental disorder, but it has not been conclusively shown that the more frequent such disorders are, the higher the level of creativity.

The rate of professional productivity in art, science, and other creative endeavors increases rapidly at the beginning of a career, reaches a peak in midlife, and then slowly declines. It is not known whether the decline is necessary or a side effect of other factors, for example, health problems. That some individuals begin creative careers late in life is evidence against an inevitable decline.

Creativity as Ability

All individuals with healthy brains have some degree of creative potential, but individuals vary in how much novelty they in fact produce. Psychometric measures of creativity are based on the hypothesis that the ability to create is general across domains of activity (art, business, music, technology, etc.) and stable over time. This view implies that a person whose creativity is above average in one domain can be expected to be above average in other domains also.

The Remote Associations Test (RAT) developed by Sarnoff A. Mednick measures how easily a person can find a link between semantically different concepts. E. Paul Torrance's Tests of Creative Thinking (TTCT) measures divergent production, that is, how many different answers to a question a person can provide within a time limit. For example, a person might be asked to propose alternative titles to a well-known movie. More recent tests developed by Robert J. Sternberg uses complex test items from realistic contexts. Creativity tests correlate modestly with each other. Critics point out that there are no objective criteria for scoring the responses and that test performance might not be indicative of a creative mind.

Relation to Intelligence

Correlations between creativity tests and IQ tests vary in magnitude from study to study and depend on which tests are used. Some correlations are no smaller than correlations among creativity tests, so they do not provide strong evidence that IQ and creativity are distinct dimensions. The findings can be understood in terms of a so-called triangular correlation (also known as the threshold hypothesis): Individuals in the lower half of the IQ distribution lack the requisite cognitive capacity to create and hence necessarily exhibit low creativity; individuals in the upper half of the IQ distribution have the requisite capacity but may or may not develop a disposition to create. Consequently, creativity and IQ are highly correlated at low IQ levels but weakly correlated at high IQ levels. Alternative interpretations of the relation between creativity and intelligence have been proposed, including that they are two aspects of the same ability, that they are unrelated, and that they are mutually exclusive.

Creativity as Process

The fact that the human mind can generate novel concepts and ideas requires explanation. Cognitive psychologists aim to infer the relevant mental processes from observations of how individuals solve problems that require creativity. One hypothesis states that creation is a process of variation and selection, analogous to biological evolution. The mind of a creative person spontaneously generates a large number of random combinations of ideas, and a few chosen combinations become expressed in behavior. An alternative hypothesis is that a creative person is able to override the constraining influence of past experiences and hence consider a wide range of actions and possibilities. The moment at which a previously unheeded but promising option comes to mind is often referred to as insight. A closely related hypothesis is that creative individuals are more able to break free from mental ruts–trains of thought that recur over and over again even though they do not lead to the desired goal or solution. It has also been suggested that people create by making analogies between current and past problems and situations, and by applying abstractions–cognitive schemas–acquired in one domain to another domain.

These process hypotheses are not mutually exclusive. Each has received support in research studies. Due to the separation within psychology of the cognitive and psychometric traditions, there is little or no interaction between process hypotheses and test development.

Relation to Imagery

There is widespread belief that highly creative individuals think holistically, in visual images, as opposed to the step-by-step process that supposedly characterizes logical thinking. Although consistent with often quoted autobiographical comments by Albert Einstein, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, F. A. Kekulé and others, systematic support for this belief is lacking. There is strong research support for a function for visual imagery in memory recall, but its relevance for creativity is unclear.

Relation to Knowledge

Cognitive and biographical studies have shown that creative problem solutions require thorough knowledge of the relevant domain and domain-specific strategies. For example, scientific discovery depends, in part, on knowing what the current theory predicts, plus the strategy of paying close attention to data that deviate from those predictions; creativity in other domains requires other strategies. It is possible that creativity is not a general ability or process, but that creative behaviors and products emerge when a competent and knowledgeable person is motivated to engage in a cumulative effort over a long period of time. If so, a person who is unusually creative in one domain of activity is not necessarily unusually creative in other domains.

Creativity and Education

It is not known to what extent an individual's ability to create can be enhanced. The popular press produces a steady stream of books that advocate particular techniques and training programs; most have not been evaluated, so it is not known whether they work. The small number of training techniques that have been evaluated systematically produce modest effects. It is possible that more effective training techniques exist but have yet to be invented. Most training programs implicitly assume that creativity is a general ability or process.

Although it is unclear whether the ability to create can be enhanced, there is consensus that the disposition to create can be suppressed. Creativity and discipline are not antithetical–creative individuals practice much and work hard–but extensive reliance on overly structured activities can thwart the impulse to create, with negative effects on students' well-being. Students with high ability will perform better than others in activities that require design, imagination, or invention, but participation in such activities encourages the disposition to create in students at any level of ability.

Creative individuals often elicit negative reactions from others by violating social norms and expectations. In a school setting, care should be taken to distinguish creative students from students who cause disturbances due to emotional or social problems. Creative students who find ways to engage others in their projects are likely to become outgoing and adopt leadership roles. Creative students who experience difficulties in this regard are likely to engage in individual projects. In short, high creativity is compatible with both social and individualistic life styles; either outcome is healthy.

There is widespread concern among educators in Western countries that the trend to define the goals of schooling in terms of standardized tests forces teachers to prioritize fact learning and analytical ability over creativity. Participation in creative activities is emphasized in schools that implement particular pedagogical theories, for example, the Montessori and Waldorf schools.

Broader View

Creativity is a historical force. Art and science transform people's ideas and worldviews, and technological innovation continuously transforms social practices. Toward the end of the twentieth century, the importance of innovation for economic production was widely recognized among business leaders.


STERNBERG, ROBERT J., ed. 1999. Handbook of Creativity. Cambridge, Eng: Cambridge University Press.


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