The Messy Minds of Creative People

The Messy Minds of Creative People

The Messy Minds of Creative People

Creativity is very messy.

Creativity is very messy.

According to one prominent theory, the creative process involves four stages:  preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification. This is all well and good in theory. In reality, the creative process often feels like this:

Or this:










The creative process– from the first drop of paint on the canvas to the art exhibition– involves a mix of emotions, drives, skills, and behaviors. It’d be miraculous if these emotions, traits and behaviors didn’t often conflict with each other during the creative process, creating inner and outer tension. Indeed, creative people are often seen as weird, odd, and eccentric.

Over the years, scientists have attempted to capture the personality of creative people. But it hasn’t been easy putting them under the microscope. As psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who has interviewed creative people across various fields points out, creative people “show tendencies of thought and action that in most people are segregated. They contain contradictory extremes; instead of being an “individual,” each of them is a “multitude.”

So how can we possibly bring order to the messy minds of creators? A new paper offers some hope. Psychologists Guillaume Furst, Paolo Ghisletta and Todd Lubart present an integrative model of creativity and personality that is deeply grounded in past research on the personality of creative people.

Bringing together lots of different research threads over the years, they identified three “super-factors” of personality that predict creativity: Plasticity, Divergence, and Convergence.

The Super-Factors of Personality

Plasticity consists of the personality traits openness to experience, extraversion, high energy, and inspiration.* The common factor here is high drive for exploration, and those high in this super-factor of personality tend to have a lot of dopamine– “the neuromodulator of exploration“– coursing through their brains. Prior research has shown a strong link between Plasticity and creativity, especially in the arts.

Divergence consists of non-conformity, impulsivity, low agreeableness, and low conscientiousness. People high in divergence may seem like jerks, but they are often just very independent thinkers. This super-factor is close to Hans Eysenck’s concept of “Psychoticism“. Throughout his life, Eysenck argued that these non-conforming characteristics were important contributors to high creative achievements.

Finally, Convergence consists of high conscientiousness, precision, persistence, and critical sense. While not typically included in discussions of creativity, these characteristics are also important contributors to the creative process.

The researchers found that Convergence was strongly related to Plasticity. In other words, those who were open to new experiences, inspired, energetic, and exploratory tended to also have high levels of persistence and precision. The common factor here is most likely high energy. Perspiration and inspiration feed off each other, leading to even higher energy levels.

Nevertheless, these three super factors were at least partially distinct. For instance, those with high openness to experience and inspiration weren’t necessarily rebellious, impulsive, critical, or motivated to achieve.

Stages of Creativity

Critically, these three super-factors differed in importance depending on the stage of the creative process. While it’s true that the creative process is messy, scientists have at least put some order on things by agreeing on two broad classes of processes that work in cooperation to lead to high levels of creativity: Generation and Selection.

Generation consists of idea production and originality. During this stage, it’s crucial to silence the inner critic and imagine lots of different possibilities. This stage is all about quantity of ideas.

Generation is necessary but not sufficient for creativity, however. Selection helps make the ideas not only novel, but also valuable to society. The Selection stage involves processes such as criticism, evaluation, formalization, and elaboration of ideas. As Furst and colleagues note, “The ultimate goal of Selection is thus to form a coherent final product by providing a constant check during its development.”

Looking at the super-factors of personality, the researchers found that Plasticity and Divergence were most strongly related to the Generation stage of creativity. In contrast, Convergence was most strongly related to Selection. This makes sense, considering that creativity involves both processes relating to novelty and processes relating to usefulness. Indeed, the researchers found that the interaction of Generation and Selection was associated with both the intensity and achievement of everyday creative activities.**

But hold up, you may say. How can creativity be associated with all of these things: openness to experience, inspiration, high energy, impulsivity, rebelliousness, critical thinking, precision, and conscientiousness? Isn’t that contradictory?

Which brings us back to the beginning of this article. Creativity involves many different stages. Those who are capable of reaching the heights of human creative expression are those who have the capacity for all of these characteristics and behaviors within themselves and are flexibly able to switch back and forth between them depending on the stage of the creative process, and what’s most adaptive in the moment.

I told you creativity is messy.


Happy New Year!  Look out in 2015 for more insights on intelligence and creativity as well as a new book on the latest science of creativity, co-authored with Carolyn Gregoire.


© 2014 Scott Barry Kaufman, All Rights Reserved


* The researchers measured “extraversion”using the Big Five framework. Under this framework, extraversion consists of a collection of traits associated with high sensitivity to environmental rewards, including positive emotions, sociability, enthusiasm, novelty seeking, assertiveness, and self-confidence. This finding doesnot mean that introverts are less likely to be creative. In fact, research suggests that the sociability component of extraversion is not as strongly linked to creativity as the other components of extraversion. If anything, research shows that the capacity for solitude is essential for optimal creativity. The facets of extraversion that seem to be most crucial to creativity are those associated with enthusiasm, confidence, and ambition.

**Interestingly, selection alone was not related to creativity. In particular, they found that people who were really good at Selection showed reduced levels of creativity if their Generation skills were low. Therefore, Generation skills are essential to creativity, and while generation skills may compensate for lower levels of Selection ability, the highest levels of Selection in the world may not be able to help you create if you have very low Generation ability.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Andrea Kuszewski and Carolyn Gregoire for bringing those alternative conceptualizations of the creative process to my attention. :)


This article originally appeared at Scientific American

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