Psychology of Creativity

psychology of creativity

When “Deathly Hallows,” the seventh book in the Harry Potter series went on sale in 2007, hysteria surrounded its release. Lines of children, teens, and parents, many dressed as their favorite Harry Potter characters, queued up for hours, sometimes overnight, in front of bookstores to get their copies.

So many lines, in fact, filled with so many people, that stores sold 8.3 million copies in the U.S. in the first 24 hours. The books sold to another equally enthusiastic 3 million readers in other markets within the same time frame.

Even before its release, the frenzy surrounding this book was unlike any other in book publishing history, similar to at least a few of the previous Harry Potter book releases. The books launched J.K. Rowling, once on welfare, into becoming the first billion-dollar author in history. She also won numerous awards and received many honors, too numerous to list.

Could a better case study of a truly creative product produced by a highly creative individual exist? Book reviewers, readers, and many critics – although not all – have called Rowling’s books “highly inventive,” labeling her as a “colossal energy” and describing her imagination as a “phenomenon.”

How else to describe creativity with a capital “C?”

Big-C creativity

The field of the Psychology of Creativity applies empirical, scientific rigor to the study of this type of pioneering creativity, or what research psychologists call “big-C” creativity.

Convergent vs. Divergent thinking

Convergent thinking refers to intelligence rated by IQ tests, or tests that measure rational, problem-solving abilities. Convergent thought is analytical, logical and controlled. It means one “right answer” for a given problem. Standardized tests and intelligence tests measure convergent thinking.

Divergent thinking refers to the ability to come up with many solutions or ideas for problems that don’t have one solution. It refers to associative and intuitive thought, and thinking that requires flexibility. It’s the ability to ask simple questions to develop unique and novel ideas.

Yet psychologists who study creativity scientifically have a much stronger litmus test than commercial success for defining creativity.

Big-C creativity is rare, according to Dean Keith Simonton, PhD, of the University of California, Davis. In the Monitor article “What exactly is creativity?”

Simonton defines big-C creativity as a person solving a problem or creating an object that significantly impacts how others think – and live their lives.

In addition to understanding big-C creative contributions, researchers also refer to an academic definition of creativity when studying consequential and life changing acts of creativity. Simonton explains this definition as having two connected parts: originality and functionality.

He states that an individual isn’t big-C creative unless they’ve come up with something that hasn’t been done before – unprecedented originality or novelty. But in addition to this originality, “the idea has to work, or be adaptive or be functional in some way; it has to meet some criteria of usefulness.”

For some psychologists, Harry Potter might fit this description of a “novel” product, a truly original work of fiction. Some would argue that its usefulness was to ignite a reading firestorm within a culture that educators and the media claimed didn’t read anymore. They claim that these books brought excitement back to an activity quickly becoming eclipsed by digital forms of entertainment.

Other psychologists, depending on their theories of creativity, might disagree. They would say that Rowling simply built on a long tradition of fantasy literature, established by authors like J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, and that her commercial success does not translate into a new function or criteria of usefulness.

In short, determining whether J.K. Rowling’s contribution to creativity, or if her Harry Potter books contribute in a big-C manner, depend on the psychological theory applied.

Theories of creativity

Up until the middle of the last century, creativity wasn’t widely discussed among psychologists, let alone studied. However, in a speech to the American Psychological Association in 1950, psychologist J.P. Guilford proclaimed that creativity had been overlooked as a research topic, and challenged researchers to study it empirically – to come up with a plausible way of describing how creativity actually occurs.

Guilford, a psychologist who questioned the common thinking that IQ tests measure only one type of intelligence, was the first to differentiate between convergent and divergent thinking. Divergent thinking has since become a characteristic identifier for creative thinking.

His research along with his admonition for others to begin studying the psychology of creativity led to an explosion of studies and numerous theories on creativity. The plethora of creativity theories developed over the past thirty years necessitated that scientists group the current theories into 10 categories. These categories include economic theories, stage and componential process theories, and systems theories, among others.

Many categories of creativity theories overlap in thought and definition. For example, many focus on big-C related topics relating to history’s major discoveries and innovations. Many also analyze how “little-c” creativity takes place, or what creativity psychologists consider personal forms of day-today creativity that don’t systematically change an area of knowledge or thought, but nevertheless help individuals, businesses, and other organizations flourish.

Some psychologists, such as cognitive psychologist Robert J. Sternberg, develop theories that encompass both types, little-c and big-C. In the book, “Creativity and Development,” he states: “Often, the difference between the two is whether a contribution is creative only with respect to oneself or with respect to a field as well. Psychologically, however, the processes may be quite similar.”

Sternberg maintains that although the psychological processes are similar, those working in a particular field will view these contributions quite differently.

In other words, fields such as fiction writing will consider the contributions of J.K. Rowling much differently than the work of a creative writer who has published a few traditional short stories in obscure literary magazines. This unfortunately is the case regardless of any reserves of skyrocketing creativity that reside within the largely unread, unrecognized writer.

The investment theory

Sternberg calls his theory “investment theory,” and creative psychology experts place this theory in a category called “economic theories of creativity.”

In a chapter of the creative development book titled “The Development of Creativity as a Decision-Making Process,” he defines this theory in terms of an individual’s decision to be creative.

He explains that creators decide to buy low and sell high in ideas, meaning that they generate and pursue ideas and concepts that seem too unusual or out-of-the mainstream. However, these are the ideas that have the potential for the most growth.

Even when an unorthodox or novel idea receives a great amount of resistance from the field, the creative individual pursues and persists, eventually persuading others of its merit, and sells the idea high. And then the creative individual moves on to the next unorthodox and novel idea.

Sternberg calls his theory a confluence theory, or a theory that hypothesizes that several components must converge in order for creativity to take place. (see The Six “P’s” of Creativity.) These components might include: cognitive style (process); personality traits (personality); the right environment (place); and the ability to persuade others to consider or accept the idea (persuasion).

The six “P’s” Of Creativity

To develop theories on creativity, research psychologists focus their emphases and investigations on one or more central aspects of creativity, which they have labeled the six “P’s.”

Process. Process refers to how creative processes take place cognitively, or more specifically what types of processing occur during creative thought and invention.

Product. Research psychologists rate and quantify the creativity of a particular creative output, such as a Harry Potter book, a painting by Pablo Picasso, or a new product, such as Facebook. Scientists rate the ingenuity and novelty of a product against more traditional, conventional, and less creative outputs.

Personality. Early research tended to focus heavily on personality traits, as certain traits apply to creative individuals across domains, such as mathematics, science, business, or the arts. Most theories today regard personality traits as only one aspect or influence of creative behavior.

Place. Place is also referred to as “press” for pressure, or high-demand environments vs. low-demand environments. Creativity thrives in less controlled environments, where there is “low” pressure for quick results, and managers, parents or superiors reward differences rather than behaviors that fit in with conventional ways of doing things.

Persuasion. Creativity persuades or initiates change, so those highly creative individuals with innovative ideas and products must have the ability to convince others in a field of expertise of the output’s true novelty.

Potential. Potential research focuses on potential creative outputs, or the as-of-yet unfulfilled creative potential of individuals. This “P” focuses more research on everyday creativity, and most specifically on the potential of children and the educational supports needed for creativity to flourish.

Types of Creativity Theories

CategorySummarySix P’s Focus
DevelopmentalCreativity develops over time.Person, Place, Potential, & Product
PsychometricCreativity is measured reliably and validly.Primarily Product
EconomicCreative ideas and behavior are influenced by market forces, and cost-benefit analyses.Person, Place, Product & Persuasion
Stage & Componential ProcessThe creative process proceeds through a series of stages or components.Primarily Process
CognitiveSpecific types of thought processes characterize creative people and accomplishments.Person & Process
Problem Solving & Expertise BasedCreative solutions to problems result from a rational process, relying on cognitive processes and domain expertise.Person, Process & Product
Problem FindingCreative people proactively try to discover problems to solve.Process, Person, & Potential
Evolutionary (Darwinian)Eminent creativity is evolutionary in process, involving blind generation and selective retention.Person, Process, Place & Product
TypologicalCreators vary according to key individual differences.Primarily Person; but also Process, Product, and Place.
SystemsCreativity occurs within a complex system of interacting and interrelated factors.Varying emphasis across all P’s.

* From “The Cambridge Handbook of Creativity,” edited by James C. Kaufman and Robert J. Sternberg, 2010, Cambridge University Press, pages 27-28.

Systems theories

Creativity theorists also have designated one category of theories as “systems theories.” These theories are also theories of confluence, but some place more or less emphasis on one of the six P’s of creativity to the exclusion of others.

For example, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, PhD, of Claremont Graduate University, is the architect of a systems theory that emphasizes big-C creativity, and how it takes place interrelationally among three components:

  1. The domain. The domain is a body of knowledge for a particular discipline. Domains contain symbolic rules and procedures. For example, mathematics is a domain, as is art history, fiction writing, physics, and economics.
  2. The field. The gatekeepers of the knowledge contained within a domain comprise the field. These individuals decide if a novel idea, product, or artwork will be included in the domain. They are journal editors, curators of museums, art and book critics, administrators, or foundations and nonprofits that deal with culture.
  3. The person. A person with big-C creativity must be educated and knowledgeable in all important aspects of a domain. This person takes the domain’s rules and procedures and develops a novel pattern, and persuades the gatekeepers to accept this novelty into the field. (see Identifying Creative Personalities.)

Csikszentmihalyi summarizes his concept of creativity as any act, idea, or product that changes an existing domain or that transforms an existing domain into a new one. And he states that a creative person is someone who changes the domain. However, he notes, that “a domain cannot be changed without the explicit or implicit consent of a field responsible for it.”

Although Cskiszentmihalyi’s theory discusses personality traits, it takes a less quantitative approach to measuring those traits compared to other creativity theories. He also does not focus on how specific cognitive processes, such as motivation, contribute to creativity.

Componential model of individual creativity

More of an emphasis on the cognitive “process” is found in the category of “stage and componential process theories,” theories that attempt to explain creativity in terms of the stages or levels of thinking that an individual goes through in order to create. This category of creativity attempts to measure both little-c and big-C creativity, and becomes especially useful for educators or business trainers when instructed to nurture and develop creative thinking skills.

Teresa Amabile, professor of business administration in the entrepreneurial unit at Harvard Business School, applies her PhD in psychology in researching how life inside organizations influence performance, including individual productivity, team creativity, and organizational innovation. Her 35 years of research on how the work environment influences creativity and motivation yielded a theory of creativity and innovation called the “componential model of individual creativity.”

The model states that an individual must have knowledge, technical skills, and special talents in the domain or discipline in which the person works. But simply having domain-specific skills doesn’t lead to creativity. In order to produce truly novel, innovative products or ideas, the individual must also possess certain traits, such as the ability to suspend judgment, self-discipline, perseverance, and nonconformity.

Finally, to truly achieve creative outputs, the creative individual must have a high degree of intrinsic motivation. Intrinsically motivated means pursuing a task with passion for the “love” or enjoyment that the task brings to the individual. This contrasts with extrinsic motivators, such as rewards, expected evaluations, or competition – motivators that Amabile’s theory states might actually undermine creativity.

J.K. Rowling’s Creativity

Psychologists studying creativity might use any of the theories discussed in this article – investment theory, systems theory, or componential theory – to analyze whether J.K. Rowling contributed to literature in a big-C way.

Or a PhD student studying cognitive or social psychology (see Cognitive Psychology or Social Psychology) and specializing in creativity might use this famous author and her famous character, Harry Potter, to develop his or her own theory on creativity. Reading through some of the testimonials by individuals who read her books as children, it’s clear that she changed and affected many lives. That reason alone translates into a dissertation waiting to be written.

Other theorists are less interested in these big-C types of creative output, more interested in how little-c creativity enriches all lives, grows businesses and organizations, and creates a rich and pleasurable world in which to live. They study the underlying principles of big-C in order to apply them to developing creative habits for all individuals.

For more information on degrees that lead to research positions in the field of the Psychology of Creativity, or degrees that offer programs designed to enhance creativity in a number of jobs and professions, contact psychology schools offering degrees or coursework in the psychology of creativity.

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