Creativity Components

Creativity Components

Psychology September 10, 2012 / By Sandeep Gautam
Creativity Components

Creativity is comprised of four factors. Just remember this equation: Creativity = Surprise + Originality + Beauty + Utility.

Today I want to talk about the components of creativity or the underlying factors of the creative process. One way to approach the problem is by looking at how we measure or evaluate a creative product.

Creativity is sometimes broken up into divergent thinking and convergent thinking; though I argue that essentially same processes are involved in both.

Divergent thinking is measured using Torrance test of creative thinking (TTCT). TTCT consists of both verbal and figural parts. Divergent thinking is also measured by Guilford’s Alternate uses task in which one has to come up with as many uses as possible for a common household items (like brick).  

These creativity test results are scored keeping in mind a number of different creativity criteria. The most common (common to all of the above) criteria are:

1. Flexibility: This captures the ability to cross boundaries and make remote associations. This is measured by number of different categories of ideas generated.

2. Originality: This measures how statistically different or novel the ideas are compared to a comparison group. This is measured as number of novel ideas generated.

3. Fluency: This captures the ability to come up with many diverse ideas quickly. This is measured by the total number of ideas generated.

4. Elaboration:  This measures the amount of detail associated with the idea.  Elaboration has more to do with focussing on each solution/idea and developing it further.

Convergent thinking is measured by tests like remote associations test or insight problems. These problems are solved when you apply one of the methods below:

1.       Make unique association between parts of the problem. This looks again similar to flexibility or how fluid is your categorisation schema enabling you to think out of the box and not be limited by typical categories or associations.

2.       Take a novel approach (and not the typical approach) to problem solving. To me, this again looks similar to originality.

3.       See problem from a different perspective. To me this looks like how quickly you can adopt multiple perspectives – the speed with which you can take alternate perspectives and is similar to fluency.

Creativity is also defined as coming up with something that is both novel and useful. At which point I am reminded of a quote by Oscar Wilde:  “We can forgive man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.  All art is quite useless."  I understand Wilde to mean that art need not be useful or fulfill the criteria of utility, but is more measured by whether it fulfils the criterion of aesthetics or beauty.  As long as one considers art as an integral part of creativity, I think we need to make room for beauty as part of defining what is creative: creativity = utility + beauty + novelty.

Now, to me novelty itself can be either because the thing in purview is really new or original or it can be familiar yet enigmatic (like Monalisa’s smile) and thus be surprising, or novel/ captivating in that sense.

Thus the modified equation looks like: creativity = surprise + originality + beauty + utility

Taken together I argue that these criteria/strategies/definitions that are used to measure and define creativity and solve creative problems, also hint at the underlying factor structure of creativity.

I propose that creativity is made of four factors:

1.       The first factor is SURPRISE: whether one produces something that continues captivating attention, even though it becomes familiar over time. This may result from rare and remote association of ideas or a recombination process that brings familiar things together in an unfamiliar/unexpected way. This is the ability to think beyond conventional boundaries or categories, loosen up the associations and make remote associations between and within categories. This is also related to flexibility with which you can walk across categories and disciplines.  An example might be Mona Lisa by Da Vinci or putting a urinal in an art gallery.

2.       The second factor is ORIGINALITY: whether one produces something that is really unique and novel and unheard of before. This is creativity that is not just combinatorial but perhaps associated with transforming and transcending. As pre Pribram novelty is a result of new rearrangements of old ideas. If the first factor is about combination, this may be thought of as permutation or reordering. This is related to originality scores. An example might be cubism by Picasso where the face/familiar objects are rearranged, sort of.

3.       The third factor is BEAUTY: whether one produces something that is appealing and aesthetically satisfying. Beauty lies in the eyes of beholder and is related to subjective preferences. Identifying beauty is a fast and frugal process and as per one conception, we find something beautiful, if we can process it easily (that is why average faces are more beautiful- ease of processing). This is related to fluency scores or the ease with which you can ideate.  Expressionisms by Monet et al looks beautiful because it’s easy on eyes.

4.       The fourth factor is of UTILITY: whether one produces something that is useful. As evident from the alternate uses task the utility of something is ambiguous and context dependent and yet measured objectively and not subjectively.  Creativity is the ability to deal with this inherent ambiguity, be comfortable with it and look at things from multiple simultaneous perspectives to find useful contexts in which to use/ apply it. This is the ability to see if the solution actually solves the problem. Also the ability to elaborate an idea and add details to it, so as to make it useful/ relevant. Here, one can focus on one stream of thought/ idea and take it to logical conclusion, adding details and making it complex. The Miniature art of India, that has elaborate details, is an example of this form, and is useful in reconstructing history.

To put in simple words, creativity is generation of new, unexpected, likeable and useful/complex ideas/ things etc. Creativity happens if something ‘stands out’ from the crowd.

To take an analogy, in many psychological tasks, a stimulus stands out, if it is ‘surprising, novel, rare or complex’. Similarly, a creative product stands out if it is surprising, original, aesthetic (rarity is linked to beauty in some accounts- the rarer it is, the more beautiful/ art-valued it is) and useful (sufficiently complex/’designed’ to be useful).

 I have also earlier alluded to Blind Variation and Selective Retention (BVSR) theory of creativity.

As per my latest thinking, factors 1 and 2, unexpected recombination (surpisability) and new permutations/ transformations/ mutations (originality) lead to blind variations that lead to novel products/ ideas. These are then selected using the lens and criterion of Beauty and Utility, the remaining two factors. Akin to sexual selection, factor 3 or beauty or subjective aesthetic preferences drive the selection process in this case. Akin to natural selection, factor 4 or utility or objective adaption criterion drives selection by this means. 

Together the 2 factors that create variation (recombination/ mutations) and the 2 factors that select as per subjective and objective criterions (sexual-preferences (context-invariant) based/ natural- utility/fitness (context sensitive) based) ensure that creative products are original and surprising, as well as beautiful and useful.


Note: Some parts of the above ideas were developed and elaborated in my earlier Psychology Today blog and The Mouse Trap posts.   

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