How About a Few New Myths about Creativity?

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Synopsis

Today, there are more pressing creativity myths than the tortured artist or the arts bias. Here are three.

Bloggers and journalists can’t seem to resist discussing the many misconceptions that exist about creativity. Try googling “myths of creativity” (“4 Myths of Creativity”, “10 Myths of Creativity”, “7 Myths of Creativity”...) and you will find any number that have pretty much been debunked. The most tiresome include the following:

  1.  The mad genius/tortured artist stereotype: Not all creative people are mentally ill.
  2.  The arts bias: Creativity takes place in other domains besides the arts.
  3.   “I’m not creative”: Creativity can be learned.

Surely, most readers have seen a similar list of creativity myths. Popular psychology authors can’t seem to help themselves when it comes to dispelling some of these stereotypical myths. At one time this may have been a service, but these so-called myths have moved into the realm of cliché, and happily so: In many ways, you could say that these writers accomplished what they set out to do, and yet the lists keep coming.

It’s not that creativity myths no longer exist—the opposite in fact, but these myths really need an update. Let’s move on to a new series of myths—those that will educate rather than bore readers. And let’s remember the true goal: to increase our collective knowledge of creativity.

So, what are some current myths about creativity? And why are they myths?

1. Good mood=creativity. The correction of the “creative people are mentally unhealthy” myth has produced an equal and opposite reaction: a newly widespread belief that peoples’ good moods leads to their creativity. While some research supports this, the story of creativity and mood is much richer.  For example, in some cases, a positive mood can damage creativity, such as when there is no external feedback.[1] Negative moods can also lead to better outcomes in the evaluative, convergent phase of the creative process. Interestingly, a more effective way to think about creativity and mood may not be “positive” or “negative,” but “high-activation” (elated or angry) or “low-activation” (calm or melancholy). Overall, activation appears to trump valence; in other words, experiencing a negative, activating emotion will do more for creativity than a deactivating, positive emotion.[2]

2. The extended effort principle proposes that striving for a quantity of ideas leads to more quality ideas. This principle is loosely tied to the third third rule, that the most original ideas come at the end of idea generation: the first third of ideas are obvious; the second third, mediocre; and the third, homeruns. While some research supports the extended effort principle, other research suggests that there are more efficacious routes to quality idea output. In general, studies that have examined brainstorming interventions, such as different types of instructions, have found that the number of ideas increases simply due to productivity. When the instructions emphasize quantity, participants generate more good ideas because the intervention has increased the overall number of ideas, rather than increasing the ratio of good to bad ideas, which would be the ideal scenario. Furthermore, there may be diminishing returns on the extended effort principle. Another study found a curvilinear relationship, with a positive but decreasing slope, between quantity and quality. The optimal time to stop brainstorming may depend on the nature of the problem (how many viable solutions are there?) and an individual's cognitive abilities (how apt the person is at category switching or if they tend to get stuck in a rut). One other factor is time. Diminishing returns may or may not show up depending on whether the brainstorming session is five minutes or one hour. The lengthier the brainstorming session, the likelier diminishing returns may be.

3. The threshold hypothesis. The threshold hypothesis is attractive in its simplicity to explain the relationship between creativity and intelligence: that creativity and intelligence relate to one another up to an IQ of 120. The same theory holds that above an intelligence level of 120, the relationship weakens. In a re-examination of the hypothesis, which dates from the 1960s, current research has resulted in mixed findings. Furthermore, our conceptions of creativity and intelligence have become more complex since the theory was first proposed. We now know that the relationship between creativity and intelligence varies according to how we define them. For example, we might define creativity as divergent thinking or creative achievement; we might define intelligence as g. One study found support for the threshold hypothesis when measuring creativity in terms of average originality of ideas in response to divergent thinking tasks (e.g. What can be elastic?) but not for creative achievement, which continued to relate to creativity beyond above average intelligence. So, though a threshold may indeed exist, the idea that these are known facts is a myth.

If the authors of articles about creativity myths want to change perceptions rather than simply hear themselves talk, they need to cover new ground, including the myths I have discussed, such as that good mood equals creativity, the extended effort principle, and the threshold theory. And, progress and new interests aside, shouldn’t an article on creativity be, well, creative?


[1] Kaufmann, G., & Vosburg, S. K. (1997). “Paradoxical” mood effects on creative problem-solving. Cognition and Emotion, 11, 151–170.

[2] Baas, M., De Dreu, C. K., & Nijstad, B. A. (2008). A meta-analysis of 25 years of mood-creativity research: Hedonic tone, activation, or regulatory focus? Psychological Bulletin, 134, 779-806.

Tags: creativity, creativity myths, creativity research, creativity studies, extended effort principle, good mood and creativity, molly holinger, psychology, the threshold hypothesis

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