What is Creativity? Evolution of Theories in Psychology

& Relevant Book Recommendations

October 9, 2019

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What is creativity? Is it that burning feeling that you have when you must break and bend the known rules and invest your energy in making a mark on the world, be it an art piece or maybe just something a little bit more practical that helps you enjoy your life more? Is it that sudden burst of an original idea in your mental landscape? Is it the capacity to reinvent, reorganize or reinterpret the data in a single field of study or is it linking information between several? It is all that and more, as we will discover when learning about the different levels of creativity distinguished by Irving A. Taylor. 

But first, we dedicate the introductory part of this article to following the footsteps of the concept of creativity that were made in the scientific world of psychology by presenting a short history of the distinct points of view on its origin and characteristics.

Creativity is the process of sensing problems or gaps in information, then identifying the difficulties and seeking solutions through trial and error or through forming hypotheses.

Short History of Creativity

The word creativity has its origin in the Latin creare which means to make, to conceive, to develop, to produce. It was introduced in the psychological vocabulary by American psychologist Gordon Allport (1937) (buy his books from Amazon) and it is replacing the old terms of innovative spirit, inventivity, talent

We owe the first attempt at studying it using scientific grounds to the work of English savant Francis Galton, Hereditary Genius (1869). Researching the genealogical tree of a large number of famous families which gave the world many generations of highly creative personalities, Galton reaches the conclusion that heredity is the determinant factor of the creative force and that genius people are endowed with exceptional intellectual aptitudes.

The year of 1950 is considered to be the beginning of the researched psychological studies on creativity. At the American Psychology Association (APA) Congress, J.P. Guilford (buy his books from Amazon) drew attention to the scarcity of studies related to creativity and proposed several directions of research involving this human personality dimension. Following this impulse, the diverse creativity problematic entered the research programs of the great majority of American and European universities.

In the 1960s and 1970s we witness an outburst of the number of papers reserved to study the problem of creativity.  In 1970, the Czech psychologist J. Hlavsa inventoried no less than 2419 titles and the 1999 edition of Creativity Encyclopaedia mentions over 10000 papers written with regard to creativity during the time interval between the years 1960 and 1998.

One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.

Two Major Opposing Views

The close examination of the definitions given to creativity reveals that novelty, originality, ingeniosity and theoretical or practical values represent essential features of the creative activity. A lack of consensus in the approach of creativity could be caused by the fact that for a long time it was thought to be only a privilege of the genius, of a single minority, and, thus, the research was conducted only towards the lives and activities of the highly creative personalities. 

A scientific research lead by British psychologist M. Freya in the 1990s showed that over 70% of the interviewed professors (over 1000 in total) believed creativity to be a gift reserved only for a few.

The American point of view, on the other hand, is in stark contrast: creativity is perceived as an ability that can be developed by the vast majority of individuals. J.P. Guilford believed that the creativity phenomenon represents a general human characteristic and that everyone can be placed on different levels of a continuum scale of creativity.

Since I reached the conclusion that the essence of the creative person is being in love with what one is doing, I have had a growing awareness that this characteristic makes possible all the other personality characteristics of the creative person: independence of thought and judgment, honesty, perseverance, curiosity, willingness to take risks and the like.

Levels of Creativity

Irving .A. Taylor goes even further than Guilford and suggests that we can distinguish between five different levels of creativity:

These are unfettered ideas, generally primitive, that emerge without the benefit of any guidelines, physical laws, or other restrictions. You might think of expressive creativity as a child using a box of multi-colored crayons to draw something.

In this stage, we use rules and physical laws to constrain our thinking, with little expressive spontaneity.   Think of this stage as “practicing.”  Things that emerge may be new to you, but may already be known to the world. 

In this stage, we develop the ability to creatively combine existing technical concepts using prior design solutions to create new designs.  Examples might be to use an old item in a new way.

Innovative creativity involves departing from existing thinking patterns and making the leap to “out of the box” thinking. Results in something that seemingly has not been done before.

Emergent creativity is the highest creative level. It involves rejecting current physical laws, principals, and constraints, and forming completely new theories about how the world works.  This often results in a ground-breaking idea.  Few people achieve this level.

The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.

Conclusion

Creativity seems to be a highly controversial human capacity and its processes are likely connected to cognitive and emotional attributes, be them conscious or unconscious. The value of its results can resonate in the single life of the inventor or it can change the course of action for the entire humanity. Either way, we cannot underestimate its importance in the act of designing the future, so why not learn the psychological mechanisms behind the process and start developing our creative skills right now?

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