Domain-Specific Creativity

domain specific creativity

The world acknowledges Sir Paul McCartney as one of the most famous musicians who ever lived, first gaining notoriety as a Beatle, then founder and composer of the group Wings, then as a remarkable soloist, a career spanning over five decades.

Less well known, however, are his other creative pursuits, including painting and poetry. His paintings have met with less popular success than his music, and his poetry hasn’t met with any wide acclaim, acceptance, or even approval.

McCartney’s ability – or inability – to apply his creative genius across domains exemplifies a topic of focus for many psychology researchers interested in creativity: Does creativity in one domain extend to other areas?

In other words, is creativity a general skill comprised of traits and attributes that gives one the ability to apply highly creative thinking to any project regardless of domain or discipline? Or is creativity specialized, giving individuals creative-thinking skills and proclivities that apply only to one domain (domain-specific)?

Music vs. Poetry vs. Painting

The question of whether creativity is general or specific remains one of today’s central debates among psychology researchers focusing on creativity.

Typically, we tend to label and categorize individuals as either creative or not creative, using the reference to “general” creativity quite liberally. Yet many researchers, especially those who support a domain-specific theory of creativity, question this logic, stating that it’s an oversimplification.

“It is a very appealing, and ultimately firmly American, notion that a creative person could be creative in any domain he or she chose. All the person would have to do would be to decide where to apply his or her talents and efforts, practice or train a lot, and voilà, you have creative achievement. On this view, talent trumps domain, and it really is somewhat arbitrary in which domain the creative achievement is expressed. Indeed, we often refer to people as ‘creative’ not as a ‘creative artist,’ or ‘creative biologist.’”

The psychology professor and researcher Gregory J. Feist of San Jose State University wrote this statement for a chapter of the book “Creativity: From Potential to Realization.” He then goes on to state that this is a naïve belief, and that creativity and talent are not general skills, but highly specialized ones.

But Jonathan A. Plucker, PhD, of Indiana University states otherwise.

In his article “Beware of Simple Conclusions: The Case for Content Generality of Creativity,” Plucker defends the use of creativity measurement tools, tests that exclusively measure “general creativity” skills.

The Other Artistic Beatle

Paul McCartney isn’t the only Beatle to dip into other artistic waters. His friend, fellow Beatle, writing partner, and sometimes nemesis, John Lennon also was a visual artist – and published author.

In 1980, three days before he was shot, Lennon gave his last interview to Jonathon Cott of Rolling Stone magazine, which the magazine published 30 years after Lennon’s death.

Here is one question and answer from that interview:

Cott: You’ve always had a unique, playful drawing style – just think of your book “In His Own Write” or the album cover and inner sleeve of “Walls and Bridges” or your immediately identifiable “Lennonesque” cartoons.

JL: I did the “Walls and Bridges” drawings when I was 10 or 11. But I found at art school they tried to knock it out of me. They tried to stop me from drawing how I draw naturally, which I wouldn’t let them do. But I never developed it further than cartoons. Somebody once said that cartoonists are people with a good creative gift who are scared of failure as painters, so they make it comedic. My cartoons to me are like Japanese brush paintings – if you can’t get it in one line, rip it up. Yoko got me into that notion a little when we met, and when she saw that I drew, she’d say, “That’s how they do it in Japan, you don’t have to make changes….This is it!”

*Taken from “The Last Interview,” by Jonathon Cott. Rolling Stone, January 6, 2011.

Psychometric Tests Measure General Creativity

These tests, such as the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking (TTCT), (see Measuring Creativity) are based on psychometric, statistically rigorous methods of measuring the divergent (creative) thinking skills and problem solving abilities. They have been given to American school children since the late 1950s.

Psychologists admit that the 90-minute test isn’t the final answer on creativity, but only one piece of a complex creativity puzzle. Still, it has accurately predicted future successful creative output better than any other tool or research method.

Plucker has studied ongoing results from this test, which doesn’t have right or wrong answers but instead measures the ability to generate highly creative, numerous, and elaborate answers for questions without right or wrong answers. For more on divergent thinking, see Creative Children.

In other publications and interviews, Plucker has noted that the results of children who score highly on the TTCT have a high correlation with future, innovative and productive careers. High scorers became successful entrepreneurs, technology experts, authors, and diplomats, among other professionals.

In fact, many researchers such as Plucker believe that these scores are a much better predictor for future professional success than IQ tests.

And the TTCT, Plucker emphasizes, measures general creativity, not domain-specific creativity. Domain-specific creativity, while important, can’t be accurately or statistically measured. It’s an after-the-fact type of subjective measurement, made on outputs after an individual has developed expertise in an area after working in a domain or discipline for many years.

Needed: A Tof Domains

Other creativity researchers state that before investigators are able to empirically compare and argue for either general creativity or domain-specific creativity, researchers must develop a ‘theory of domains.”

These researchers are calling for a clear understanding of what is meant by the term “domain.”

Domain-specific proponent Feist provides seven categories to define domain, calling them “domains of the mind”:

  • Social-emotional
  • Physics
  • Natural History
  • Language
  • Mathematics
  • Art
  • Music

Another prominent creativity researcher, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, PhD, head of the Positive Psychology department of Claremont Graduate University, defines domain simply as a set of symbolic rules and procedures, nested within a wider cultural context. Mathematics is a domain, as are science, music, art, and writing.

Areas such as mathematics have more detailed domains, according to Csikszentmihalyi, such as number theory, algebra, and calculus.

Creativity researchers John Baer, PhD, of Rider University, and James C. Kaufman, PhD, of California State University San Bernardino, also have developed their own definition of domain.

Writing in the “The Cambridge Handbook of Creativity,” (in the chapter “Is Creativity Domain Specific?”) Baer states that he and Kaufman define a domain as having three levels. The first level has seven “General Thematic Areas” or general areas of related interests:

  • Artistic/Verbal
  • Artistic/Visual
  • Interpersonal
  • Problem Solving
  • Math/Science
  • Performance
  • Entrepreneur

The second domain level contains more specific fields within the wider areas, such as writing within the artistic/verbal area, and biology, chemistry and physics within the math/science area.

The researchers have also identified a third domain level, or micro-domains, and these are even more specific areas of study within fields: poetry within the writing, and nuclear energy within physics.

Using this definition that divides domains into levels, Kaufman and Baer have developed their own creativity model. They base their model on the premise that creativity is not completely general nor completely specific, but actually a fusion between both: creativity is both general and specific. They call their model the “APT Model,” standing for Amusement Park Theoretical Model.

The Amusement Park Theoretical (APT) Model of Creativity*

Based on the metaphor for an amusement park, the APT model of creativity involves four elements or levels.

The first element is called Initial Requirements, which means individuals need admission to the park – or tickets. Tickets are analogous to intelligence and motivation.

The second element concerns the General Thematic Areas. Amusement parks such as Disney World have General Thematic Areas, such as EPCOT, the Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, and MGM Studios. These are analogous to the thematic areas of artistic/verbal, artistic/visual, interpersonal, problem solving, math and science, performance, and entrepreneur.

The third element concerns Domains within the General Thematic Areas. For example, Tomorrowland is nested within EPCOT. This is analogous to subdomains within the General Thematic Areas, such as painting within the artistic/visual area, or physics within the math/science area.

The fourth element concerns Micro-Domains. At Disney World, for example, there are rides, events, and attractions within Tomorrowland. And within the subdomain of painting, there are the micro-domains of abstract art or realistic art. Within psychology, for instance, there are the micro-domains of cognitive psychology, social psychology, and clinical psychology.

* Cited from “The Cambridge Handbook of Creativity,” edited by James C. Kaufman and Robert J. Sternberg. (From the chapter “Is Creativity Domain Specific?” pages 321-341.)

Baer states that the final reconciliation between domain-general theorists, and domain-specific theorists lies in this type of “combined” model.

The number of domain levels is “arbitrary,” he states. The main point is that the model incorporates the research findings or research and theories from both camps.

A more scholarly understanding of whether creativity is general or specific, Baer maintains, has important implications. It guides researchers and educators better define ways to assess, nurture, and enhance creativity.

The multidisciplinary study of creativity involves the following psychology fields: social, personality, cognitive, clinical, biological, differential, developmental, and educational psychology.

If you are interested in the psychology of creativity, contact the schools offering degrees in these psychological fields.


In 1995, E. Paul Torrance, considered by many to be the “father of creative psychology research” noted that creativity naturally follows when an individual in intrinsically motivated – resulting in stubborn persistence.

This finding has come from years of personality research on creativity. (see Identifying Creative People).

The Beatles are a great example of this type of intrinsic motivation leading to creativity, spending countless hours rehearsing, recording, and polishing songs. In interviews, Ringo Starr called Paul McCartney a workaholic.

The creative output of Pablo Picasso was prodigious, predicted at more than 20,000 artworks. And Japanese brush artist Katsushika Hokusi (1760 – 1849), so internally driven that it is said he didn’t even open envelopes containing money for his work, is estimated to have produced over 30,000 works.

Is is also said that Hokusi worked so much that he never cleaned his surroundings, simply moving when it got too dirty.

Mary Karr, author of the three well known memoirs “Liar’s Club,” “Cherry,” and “Lit,” has told many interviewers after writing “Lit” that she threw two versions of the book away before coming up with an acceptable draft.

In an interview the “The Paris Review” asked her if she saved any of the pages she tossed out. “No, I literally threw them all out. Because I thought, What am I saving these for?”

Despite the glut of memoirs about alcohol addiction and recovery to hit the market in the past 10 years, Karr’s memoir “Lit” shot up bestseller lists in 2009, and earned her the praise of most critics.

Persistence isn’t a word spoken by artists. In fact, they often describe a period of painful uncertainty, debilitating doubt, and agonizing tension when their work doesn’t come together.

Yet something within them keeps moving them forward, something they have a hard time defining. Most of us call it persistence.

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