Unraveling the Mystery of Innovative Minds

Unraveling the Mystery of Innovative Minds

Unraveling the Mystery of Innovative Minds

The intersection of personality, intrinsic motivation, and divergent thinking.

"The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing." –Albert Einstein

Defined as the ability to make novel and useful products, whether physical or ideational, creativity is a highly sought-after attribute believed to be a key driver of human progress and innovation. From artists to scientists and entrepreneurs to educators, people with creative thinking skills often make significant contributions to society. Investigations into enhancing our creative processes abound, with researchers constantly trying to track down the most effective ways to enhance creativity.

The Relationship Between Creativity and Personality

Researchers have known for decades a strong relationship exists between creativity and the Openness to Experience dimension of the Big Five Personality Framework. The Big Five is the most theoretically sound—reliable, and valid—personality framework for understanding personality. It comprises five subscales: conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism, openness, and extraversion.

Openness to experience is assessed by asking individuals questions like the following:

  1. I have a vivid imagination.
  2. I enjoy trying new things.
  3. I appreciate the beauty of art and nature.

People who score high in openness are often described as imaginative, unconventional, and nonconformist. Several studies have found a positive relationship between openness to experience and creativity. For example, a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that people who scored high in openness to experience were likelier to engage in creative activities, such as painting or playing a musical instrument, than those who scored low in openness.

There are several reasons why openness to experience is related to creativity. For one, people open to experience are more likely to seek out new and varied experiences, which can expose them to a broader range of stimuli and ideas, forming new connections between ideas and emerging novel insights and solutions. In addition, people who are open to experience are less likely to be constrained by conventional thinking or social norms, which can limit creativity. They are more likely to question assumptions, challenge existing ideas, and generate new perspectives. This can lead to more original and innovative thinking.

While personality traits are generally considered stable over time, there is evidence that they can change to some extent through personal growth and development. Research suggests that increasing one's level of openness to experience is possible. One way to increase openness to experience is through exposure to new and diverse experiences. Studies have shown that people who engage in novel and varied activities tend to become more open to experience over time. These activities include traveling to new places, trying new foods, or learning new skills. Another way to increase openness to experience is through education and exposure to new ideas. Taking courses, reading books on unfamiliar topics, and engaging in discussions with people from different backgrounds can help broaden one's perspective and increase openness.

Intrinsic Motivation, Self-Determination Theory, and Creativity

Intrinsic motivation refers to the drive to engage in activities for their inherent satisfaction rather than for external rewards or recognition. Research has shown that intrinsically motivated individuals are more likely to exhibit creative thinking and produce innovative ideas. Self-determination theory (SDT), developed by Deci and Ryan, provides a framework for understanding intrinsic motivation and its relationship to creativity.

SDT posits that individuals have three innate psychological needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. When these needs are met, people are more likely to be intrinsically motivated, leading to greater creativity. Autonomy refers to the desire for self-direction and personal control, competence involves mastery and effectiveness, and relatedness represents the need for social connection and belonging. According to SDT, supporting these psychological needs in various contexts (e.g., education, work, personal life) can foster intrinsic motivation and enhance creativity.

Research has identified several strategies that can help to increase intrinsic motivation:

  1. Focus on the process rather than the outcome: Emphasizing the enjoyment of the activity, rather than just the result, can increase intrinsic motivation.
  2. Set meaningful goals: Goals aligning with personal values and interests can increase intrinsic motivation. Goals that are challenging but attainable can also be motivating, as can goals that provide a sense of progress and achievement.
  3. Provide autonomy: People tend to be more intrinsically motivated when they feel they control their activities. Giving individuals a choice in what they do and how they do it can increase their motivation and engagement.
  4. Provide positive feedback: Positive feedback emphasizing progress and effort, rather than just outcomes, can increase intrinsic motivation. Encouraging individuals to set and work towards their own goals can also build their confidence and motivation.
  5. Offer opportunities for skill development: Engaging in activities that allow individuals to develop and improve their skills can increase intrinsic motivation. Providing opportunities for learning and growth can help individuals feel more competent and confident in their abilities.
  6. Create a positive environment: A positive and supportive environment can increase intrinsic motivation. This can include creating a sense of community, fostering positive relationships, and providing opportunities for social interaction and support.

Divergent Thinking and Creativity

The ability to think divergently is a crucial aspect of creativity. Divergent thinking is generating multiple ideas or solutions to a problem. It involves breaking away from conventional or linear thinking and exploring various options. Research has shown that individuals skilled in divergent thinking are likelier to exhibit creative thinking and produce innovative ideas. Research has found that individuals who scored high on divergent thinking tasks were more likely to be rated as creative by independent judges.

Here are some strategies to increase divergent thinking:

  1. Practice brainstorming: Brainstorming is a technique that involves generating as many ideas as possible without judgment or evaluation. Brainstorming can increase divergent thinking skills and lead to more creative solutions.
  2. Explore multiple perspectives: Divergent thinking involves exploring various perspectives and considering a range of possible options. Engaging with diverse perspectives can broaden one's thinking and increase the number of potential ideas or solutions.
  3. Take breaks: Research has shown that taking breaks can improve divergent thinking skills. Taking a break from a problem or task can allow the mind to rest and reset, leading to new insights and ideas.
  4. Embrace ambiguity: Divergent thinking involves exploring uncertainty and ambiguity. Embracing ambiguity and being comfortable with uncertainty can lead to more creative solutions.
  5. Seek out new experiences: Engaging in new and varied experiences can help to increase divergent thinking skills. Experiencing new things can expose individuals to new perspectives and ideas, leading to more creative thinking.

Cultivate and Create

Creativity is a highly sought-after trait crucial for human progress and innovation. Openness to experience, intrinsic motivation, and divergent thinking are essential foundations of this enigmatic ability. Cultivating these core components of creativity can aid in unlocking inventive potential and increase meaningful contributions to society.


  • Creativity is a key driver of human progress and innovation and may become the currency of the future.
  • Openness to experience, intrinsic motivation, and divergent thinking are foundational to creativity.
  • Strategies to enhance creativity include exposure to new experiences, support of psychological needs, and the development of divergent thinking.

This article originally appeared at Psychology Today.

Jessica Koehler has a Ph.D. in school psychology from the University of Maryland, where her research focused on teacher beliefs. Before that, she conducted neuropsychological evaluations and managed research assistants at a functional neuroimaging lab at Georgetown University. Dr. Koehler also worked as a psychologist in school settings conducting comprehensive psycho-educational assessments. She has experience as an undergraduate and graduate instructor, and as an online AP® Psychology lecturer, and researcher focused on evaluating social skills program implementation in school settings.

Dr. Koehler is currently a homeschooling parent of two exceptional boys and the co-principal investigator of a research project focused on gifted learners' social, emotional, and behavioral characteristics. As the creator of Koehler Academy, she is interested in connecting the science of psychology to learning and life.

Online: Koehler Academy, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter

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