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Definition: creativity from Dictionary of Psychological Testing, Assessment and Treatment

Largely synonymous with divergent thinking. The term generally refers to any ability to produce novel ideas. Note that the term has a less ‘dramatic’ meaning than the layperson’s use - i.e. it is not confined to great artists, writers, etc.


Summary Article: Creativity from The SAGE Encyclopedia of Theory in Psychology

In studying creativity, researchers make a point of clarifying their definition of the construct. Although most describe a process or an ability by which something new is produced, they might differ in the valuation of the final product. Is someone judged as more creative if his or her output is viewed as more important or acknowledged as more significant than another's? Can someone be considered creative without social evaluation of the product? For example, some people might not consider a virtuosic performer to be truly creative, since he or she is reproducing the work of a composer or a playwright—that is, someone else's creative product. Others might argue that the performer's personal interpretation stands as its own unique re-creation of the original work.

This entry considers the elements of creativity as defined by the product, the person, and the process. Further, it reviews attempts to measure creativity and its relationship to intelligence and to other traits. Finally, the development of creative ability is discussed in terms of cultural considerations.

The Creative Product

It is often difficult to distinguish between the creative process and the creative product (i.e., the outcome of the process). A product is generally considered creative if it is judged to be new or original in some sense and also is somehow useful, meaningful, or aesthetically pleasing. The product itself might be concrete or abstract, as with inventions, paintings, compositions, theories, and the like. It might also be formed from preexisting elements that are configured in a new way.

Is creativity necessarily tantamount to genius? Many researchers make the point of distinguishing between eminent-level and everyday creativity. Eminent-level creativity might receive much attention due to its rarity. Attention is clearly drawn to masterpieces and other unprecedented, transformative works. These creators are often lauded with fame, if not financial success. However, many disciplines (e.g., education and technology) encourage creative output on a regular basis, such as lesson plans, software applications, and video games. This everyday creativity might not signal genius, but its importance is unquestioned.

The Four C model is useful in its acknowledgment of different levels of creative accomplishment, and it expands the everyday and eminent domains of creativity. The mini-c level incorporates creative experiences that produce personal meaning or awareness and are usually associated with the learning process. The little-c level describes everyday creative output and problem solving. The Pro-C level is demonstrated by professionals in a given discipline, and Big-C is recognized as eminent.

For example, people interested in fashion might take classes in design and sewing and, by improving their skills and knowledge, create mini-c experiences. If they then begin to create clothes for themselves and friends, this would represent the little-c level. At the Pro-C level, they would then be able to sell their clothing and even make a living doing so. Finally, the Big-C level is reserved for those few individuals who are universally recognized for their contributions to haute couture.

The Creative Person

To measure creativity, researchers have often sought a correlation with intelligence. The threshold hypothesis proposed that a positive correlation between intelligence and creativity exists only up to a certain threshold (often cited as an IQ of 120) and above which the relationship dissipates. However, further research, including meta-analyses, have shown only weak correlations and have not supported the threshold hypothesis, leading most researchers to consider intelligence and creativity as separate abilities and constructs.

Other research has examined possible connections between creativity and mental illness, especially mood disorders. Indeed, the incidence rates of mood disorders are notably higher in artistic professionals (e.g., writers, composers, and dancers) than in individuals in nonartistic occupations (e.g., scientists and engineers). In particular, creative artists are more likely to report diagnoses of bipolar II disorder and to note more creative experiences during their hypomanic episodes. Some creative individuals with mental illness have reported that they were able to transform their distress through creative expression. Studies of resilience find that creativity might serve as a means of coping with stress and adversity and promote personal development.

Major personality theorists have attempted to explain the role of creativity. Sigmund Freud believed that creativity was an attempt to resolve an unconscious conflict. B. F. Skinner considered creativity as a distinctive behavioral response that could be conditioned through parenting. Abraham Maslow considered creativity an indication of self-actualization and the growth available to individuals unburdened by other needs.

Though there is no single personality type for creative people, a number of personality traits correlate with creativity, including self-confidence, preference for complexity, openness to new experience, tolerance of ambiguity, introversion, and independence. There are also certain life events that creative people frequently report, such as possessing a special ability, overcoming a difficulty during childhood (e.g., an illness or a disability or having a mentally ill parent), finding a mentor, or persisting in the development of a skill or talent.

Whether creativity can be fostered in children (and possibly in adults) leads to the recognition that the development of creativity, like that of other skills, requires a commitment of time and energy. The creator seeks to strike a balance between traditional expectations while allowing for something original and innovative to appear. For this reason, attempts to subdue creative responses generally should be avoided by parents, educators, and supervisors.

The Creative Process

The process of creativity is often viewed in magical ways, such as inspiration coming from a muse. One of the earliest models of the creative process was a stage model proposed by Graham Wallas. The preparation stage involves identification and exploration of the problem to be solved. This is followed by an incubation period in which a break from active work is taken, and the problem is temporarily internalized. The creator might then experience illumination—a sudden insight into the problem with a potential solution. The final stage is verification, in which the idea is worked through more consciously and applied to relevant issues.

This model has been criticized by those who argue that the order of the stages might not be relevant to all creative processes and that rapid shifts and cycles between the stages might be characteristic of creativity. Therefore, it might be more helpful to describe the types of processes that a creator might experience rather than assuming that they occur in a fixed sequence.

For example, consider a student tasked with creating a term paper. According to the stage model, in the preparation stage, he or she does some preliminary research and reading in an area of interest. This might be followed by an incubation stage in which potential theses or research questions are formed. Suddenly, as if a lightbulb went on, shaping an idea into a basic outline of a paper occurs. Finally, the verification stage might involve several rounds of drafting and revising until the final product is formed. Of course, the same outcome might come at the end of a different sequence in which one or more stages are missing or one or more are repeated.

American psychologist J. P. Guilford stressed the value of creativity and promoted research in its assessment. He distinguished convergent thinking (searching for a single outcome considered to be the only correct one) versus divergent thinking (creating multiple potential solutions to a problem). A common example for promoting divergent thinking is to think of as many possible uses for a brick as one can. Initially, one might think of obvious uses such as a building element, then recognize that its weight allows it to be a doorstop or paperweight, and eventually that its hardness makes it a weapon, a hammer, a nutcracker, and so on.

Many creative individuals have described a sense of becoming lost in their work. This experience has been extensively researched by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who labeled the phenomenon flow. While in this state, the creator might become intensely focused on his or her work and so highly motivated in the activity at hand as to lose track of time. Research suggests that one is more likely to attain flow after finding a balance between the challenge of a task and confidence in one's level of skill. An imbalance is more likely to result in boredom or anxiety.

Another puzzle is why some creators find that the creative process comes easily and others struggle to create. The answer might lie in differences in motivation. Those who are intrinsically motivated might find reward in the task itself; doing it is personally fulfilling. Those who are extrinsically motivated might focus on an external reward, such as praise or financial success. Additionally, some stages of the creative process might be more motivating than others. For example, starting a brand new project might be more appealing than continuing one already in progress.

Culture and Creativity

Cultural views of creativity vary. Most Western cultures view creative people as highly individualistic and nonconforming, consistent with the myth of the “lone genius” who toils and triumphs in isolation. Although an understanding of the self might be useful, creativity also seems to require a social context. In collectivistic cultures where conformity is valued, creativity might be an attribute by which individuals contribute something useful to society. Conversely, individualistic cultures might value creators who demonstrate some form of personal expression, and collectivistic cultures might value more those creators whose products have practical use.

It should be noted that cross-cultural research on creativity has by no means been comprehensive. It has been especially lacking in studies of African and Latin American cultures. Certainly, all cultures demonstrate creative products (e.g., music, literature, art, folklore), but the meaning and value of creativity can be difficult to research. Cultures also change over time in their support and appreciation of creativity.

According to evolutionary psychology, creativity might be one of the greatest abilities of the human species. It demonstrates humans’ adaptability to changing environments by means of tools that extend human potential. Unfortunately, many of the innovations in technology developed by humans have had consequences for the natural world that now threaten the species. Potential solutions will not come by suppressing human creativity but by supporting it.

See also Extended Mind; Heightened Consciousness; Individuality Versus Collectivity; Intrinsic Versus Extrinsic Motivation; Multiple Intelligences; Triarchic Intelligence

Further Readings
  • Dacey, J. S.; Lennon, K. H. (1998). Understanding creativity: The interplay of biological, psychological, and social factors. Jossey-Bass San Francisco CA.
  • Kaufman, J. C.; Sternberg, R. J. (Eds.). (2010). The Cambridge handbook of creativity. Cambridge University Press New York NY.
  • Runco, M. A.; Richards, R. (Eds.). (1998). Eminent creativity, everyday creativity, and health. Praeger Santa Barbara CA.
  • Douglas Hall
    Copyright © 2016 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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