In psychology, creativity is usually defined as the production of an idea, action, or object that is new and valued, although what is considered creative at any point in time depends on the cultural context.

The early history of research in creativity includes Cesare Lombroso's investigation of the relationship between genius and madness, and Sir Francis Galton's genetic studies of genius. Guilford (1967) developed a theory of cognitive functioning that took creativity into account, and a battery of tests that measured fluency, flexibility, and originality of thought in both verbal and visual domains. His model and the tests he developed, such as the "Brick Uses" and "Unusual Uses" tests, are still the foundation for much of creativity testing and research (e.g., Torrance 1988).

Contemporary approaches to creativity range from mathematical modeling and computer simulations of breakthroughs in science (Langley et al. 1987) to the intensive study of creative individuals (Gruber 1981; Gardner 1993). Other approaches include the historiographic method applied to the content of large numbers of creative works, or to biographies (Martindale 1990; Simonton 1990). Most studies, however, are still done with schoolchildren and students, and assess performance on Guilford-type tests (for reviews, see Sternberg 1988 and Runco and Albert 1990).

Stages of the Creative Process

Contrary to the popular image of creative solutions appearing with the immediacy of a popping flashbulb, most novel achievements are the result of a much longer process, sometimes lasting many years. We can differentiate five stages of this process (Wallas 1926), with the understanding that these stages are recursive, and may be repeated in several full or partial cycles before a creative solution appears.

1. Preparation It is almost impossible to have a good new idea without having first been immersed in a particular symbolic system or domain. Creative inventors know the ins and outs of their branch of technology, artists are familiar with the work of previous artists, scientists have learned whatever there is to know about their specialty. One must also feel a certain unease about the state of the art in one's domain. There has to be a sense of curiosity about some unresolved problem -- a machine that could be improved, a disease that has to be cured, a theory that could be made simpler and more elegant. Sometimes the problem is presented to the artist, scientist, or inventor by an outside emergency or requirement. The most important creative problems, however, are discovered as the individual is trying to come to terms with the problematic situation (Getzels 1964). In such cases, the problem itself may not be clearly formulated until the very end of the process. As Albert Einstein noted, the solution of an already formulated problem is relatively easy compared to the formulation of a problem no one had previously recognized.

2. Incubation Some of the most important mental work in creative problems takes place below the threshold of consciousness, where problematic issues identified during the preceding stage remain active without the person controlling the process. By allowing ideas to be associated with the contents of memory more or less at random, incubation also allows completely unexpected combinations to emerge. As long as one tries to formulate or solve a problem consciously, previous habits of mind will direct thoughts in rational, but predictable directions.

3. Insight When a new combination of ideas is strong enough to withstand unconscious censorship, it emerges into awareness in a moment of illumination -- the "Eureka!" or "Aha!" experience usually thought to be the essence of creativity. Without preparation evaluation, and elaboration, however, no new idea or product will follow.

4. Evaluation The insight that emerges must be as-sessed consciously according to the rules and conventions of the given domain. Most novel ideas fail to withstand critical examination. One can go wrong by being either too critical or not critical enough.

5. Elaboration Thomas Edison made popular the saying "Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration." Even the most brilliant insight disappears without a trace unless the person is able and willing to develop its implications, to transform it into a reality. But this stage does not involve a simple transcription of a model perfectly formed in the mind. Most creative achievements involve drastic changes that occur as the creator translates the insight into a concrete product. A painter may approach the canvas with a clear idea of how the finished painting should look, but most original pictures evolve during the process of painting, as the combination of colors and shapes suggests new directions to the artist.

Creativity as a Systemic Phenomenon

No person can be creative without having access to a tradition, a craft, a knowledge base. Nor can we trust the subjective report of a person to the effect that his or her insight was indeed creative. It is one of the peculiarities of human psychology that most people believe their thoughts to be original and valuable. To accept such personal assessment at face value would soon deprive the concept of creativity of any specific meaning.

Creativity can best be understood as a confluence of three factors: a domain, which consists of a set of rules and practices; an individual, who makes a novel variation in the contents of the domain; and a field, which consist of experts who act as gatekeepers to the domain, and decide which novel variation is worth adding to it (Csikszentmihalyi 1996). A burst of creativity is generally caused, not by individuals being more creative, but by domain knowledge becoming more available, or a field being more supportive of change. Conversely, lack of creativity is usually caused, not by individuals lacking original thoughts, but by the domain having exhausted its possibilities, or the field not recognizing the most valuable original thoughts.

The Creative Person

Three aspects of creative persons are particularly important: cognitive processes, personality, and values and motivations. While, in most cases, a certain level of intelligence is a prerequisite -- a threshold of 120 IQ is often mentioned (Getzels and Jackson 1962) -- the relationship of IQ to creativity varies by domain, and after a relatively low threshold, there seems to be no further contribution of IQ to creativity. The first and longest study of high-IQ children (Terman 1947; see also Sears and Sears 1980) found little evidence of adult creativity in a sample whose mean IQ as children was 152, or even in a subsample with an IQ above 170.

The most obvious characteristic of original thinkers is what Guilford (1967) identified as "divergent thinking" or "thinking outside the box." Divergent thinking involves unusual associations of ideas, changing perspectives, and novel approaches to problems, in contrast to convergent thinking, which involves linear, logical steps. Correlations between divergent thinking tests and creative achievement tend to be low, however, and some scholars even claim that the cognitive approach of creative individuals does not differ qualitatively from that of normal people except in its speed (Simon 1988) and quantity of ideas produced (Simonton 1990).

Some forms of mental disease such as manic depression, addiction, and suicide are more frequent among individuals involved in artistic and literary pursuits (Andreasen 1987; Jamison 1989), but this might have less to do with creativity than with the lack of recognition that obtains in artistic domains. At the same time, creative individuals appear to be extremely sensitive to all kinds of stimuli, including aversive ones (Piechowski 1991), possibly accounting for their higher rates of emotional instability.

Personality traits often associated with creativity include openness to experience, impulsivity, self-confidence, introversion, aloofness, and rebelliousness (Getzels and Csikszentmihalyi 1976; Feist forthcoming). Such people also seem to have a remarkable ability to be both playful and hard-working, introverted and extroverted, aloof and gregarious, traditional and rebellious, as the occasion requires (Csikszentmihalyi 1996). The creative person might be less distinguished by a set of traits than by the ability to experience the world along modalities that in other people tend to be stereotyped. Throughout their lives, creative persons exhibit a childlike curiosity and interest in their domains, value their work above conventional monetary or status rewards (Getzels and Csikszentmihalyi 1976), and enjoy it primarily for intrinsic reasons (Amabile 1983). Creativity is its own reward.

See also

Additional links

-- Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi


Amabile, T. (1983). The Social Psychology of Creativity. New York: Springer.

Andreasen, N. C. (1987). Creativity and mental illness: prevalence rates in writers and first-degree relatives. American Journal of Psychiatry 144:1288-1292.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996). Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. New York: HarperCollins.

Feist, G. J. (Forthcoming). Personality in scientific and artistic creativity. In R. J. Sternberg, Ed., Handbook of Human Creativity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gardner, H. (1993). Creating Minds. New York: Basic Books.

Getzels, J. W. (1964). Creative thinking, problem-solving, and instruction. In E. R. Hilgard, Ed., Theories of Learning and Instruction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Getzels, J. W., and M. Csikszentmihalyi. (1976). The Creative Vision: A Longitudinal Study of Problem Finding in Art. New York: Wiley.

Getzels, J. W., and P. Jackson. (1962). Creativity and Intelligence. New York: Wiley.

Gruber, H. (1981). Darwin on Man. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Guilford, J. P. (1967). The Nature of Human Intelligence. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Jamison, K. R. (1989). Mood disorders and patterns of creativity in British writers and artists. Psychiatry 52:125-134.

Kris, E. (1952). Psychoanalytic Explorations in Art. New York: International Universities Press.

Langley, P., H. A. Simon, G. L. Bradshaw, and J. M. Zytkow. (1987). Scientific Discovery: Computational Exploration of the Creative Process. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Martindale, C. (1990). The Clockwork Muse: The Predictability of Artistic Change. New York: Basic Books.

Piechowski, M. J. (1991). Emotional development and emotional giftedness. In N. Colangelo and G. A. Davis, Eds., Handbook of Gifted Education. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, pp. 285-306.

Runco, M. A., and S. Albert, Eds. (1990). Theories of Creativity. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Sears, P., and R. R. Sears. (1980). 1,528 little geniuses and how they grew. Psychology Today February: 29-43.

Simon, H. A. (1988). Creativity and motivation: a response to Csikszentmihalyi. New Ideas in Psychology 6(2):177-181.

Simonton, D. K. (1990). Scientific Genius. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sternberg, R. J., Ed. (1988). The Nature of Creativity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Terman, L. M. (1947). Subjects of IQ 170 or above. In Genetic Studies of Genius, vol. 4, chap. 21. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Torrance, E. P. (1988). The nature of creativity as manifest in its testing. In R. J. Sternberg, Ed., The Nature of Creativity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 43-75.

Wallas, G. (1926). The Art of Thought. New York: Harcourt-Brace.

Further Readings

Sternberg, R. J., Ed. (1998). Handbook of Human Creativity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press .