Lessons From Research on Creativity

Want to become more creative? Try cultivating courage, perseverance, humility, ethics, and purpose.

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When I was at the beginning of my PhD studies, my advisor at Stanford, Professor Gordon Bower, invited each of his first-year graduate students to his house for dinner. After dinner, he asked each of us what we wanted to study in graduate school. 

We all thought we knew what he wanted to hear — “semantic memory” — which was what he was studying. There were five guys there, all of us first-year students (and all male). The first one got up and he said, as you would predict, “semantic memory.”  The second and third guys said the same. I knew at least two of them were lying and just sucking up. It was like a Solomon Asch experiment, where people hear others lie and then say the same thing so as to be part of the crowd. 

Then my turn came. I assure you, I’m no suck-up. I knew what I wanted to study, and it wasn’t semantic memory. But when Gordon asked me what I wanted to study, I said…. “semantic memory”! Like the others, I chickened out. Or to put it another way, I was a coward. What I really wanted to study was human intelligence and creativity. I was just afraid to admit it.

That night, I was humiliated. I thought that if that was the way I was going to run my scholarly career — as a coward — I needed to find something else to do. I told myself I would never sell myself out again. I never have, although I’ve certainly had many opportunities.

In a way, this episode became the beginning of a career as a psychologist studying creativity. Here are eight lessons from my research.

Creativity is not so much an innate ability as it is an attitude toward life
There are lots of people with “creative abilities,” but they lack what the late Professor Roger Schank called the “creative attitude,” so they do not manifest their creativity.

By 1995, I proposed, in collaboration with Professor Todd Lubart (then my graduate student), an “investment theory of creativity.” The idea was that creativity is, in large part, a decision that one is willing to defy the crowd — exactly what I was unwilling to do that night at Gordon’s house. Creativity requires, more than anything else, the courage to go one’s own way, regardless of what others do.

When I was a teenager, my male peers wore tight pants — all the better, they thought, to attract girls. I wore loose pants. I’m claustrophobic and tight clothes don’t work for me. I’d like to think I was showing a creative attitude. I was also showing myself to be a bit of a dork, but I didn’t care. If you are creative, be prepared to be labeled a “dork,” or worse. Maybe much worse. That’s a price you have to be willing to pay.

A key ingredient of creativity is courage
You can’t be creative unless you are willing to stand up to the crowd. Sometimes, people will dump all over you, and you have to keep going, not fold.

By 2018, I came to a somewhat broader conclusion in a “triangular theory of creativity” — that creativity requires not only the courage to defy the crowd, but also the courage to defy oneself and all the ways of thinking that one has always assumed are just “the way things are.”

Often, the hardest thing is not to stand up to others, but to stand up to one’s own entrenched ways of thinking.

If you want to be creative, you have to stand up not only to the crowd, but also to yourself
You have to be willing to let go of ideas that are either wrong or that have served their purpose and now are obsolete. When the time comes, you have to be willing to move past your ideas that have passed their prime.

I have tried to show that courage in my own career and put behind me the mistake I made at Gordon’s house. In my first book, in 1977, I defied the conventional psychometric view of intelligence as just IQ and related abilities. I argued that the problem with this view was that it failed to elucidate the information-processing components that underlie those abilities. 

For example, someone could score low on a verbal-analogies test not because they were a poor verbal reasoner, but simply because they did not know what the words meant. If their native language was not that of the test, or if they grew up in a house that was educationally challenged, such knowledge was often not immediately available. I thought I knew all about low IQ scores, because I had had them when I was a child, I liked to think because of test anxiety.

My manuscript was published by Larry Erlbaum; he published it despite a 17.5-page negative, indeed, vitriolic review. The book later became a citation classic. I thought my creative ideas about intelligence would see me through my career.

I was wrong, as we’ll see. If you want to be creative, be prepared to say you were wrong — a lot.

Being creative requires you to admit you were wrong or, at least, not quite right
If you need to be right all the time, you will cut yourself off from the possibility of being creative. You will, at best, be a one-hit wonder.

In my second year as an assistant professor at Yale, I was invited to give a lecture at a big testing company. I thought: “This is great. After all these years doing the wrong thing, they finally are ready to admit the errors of their ways and do the right thing!”

I gave the talk. It bombed. Badly. They hated it. I went from wondering what glory awaited me when I returned to New Haven to wondering whether I still would have a job when I got back. It was yet another humiliation. But then I realized what I had learned, which turned humiliation into a sense of intellectual humility.

The more creative your ideas are, the more resistance those ideas will encounter, and the more resilience, perseverance, humility, and sheer courage you will need to keep going in the face of opposition
Of course, the testers hated the talk. Did I think that a company with zillions of dollars invested in conventional tests, which hired people to work for them who excelled on conventional tests and loved those tests, which showed how smart they were, were going to listen to a 26-year-old upstart? No way!

By 1985, I realized my ideas about intelligence were not as good as I had thought they were. In fact, they were seriously deficient, because although I was studying mental processes, I was studying only the mental processes needed to score high on IQ tests; buts the tests themselves were seriously flawed. 

I was director of graduate studies in psychology at Yale at the time, and saw that intelligence required more than the knowledge and abstract-analytical reasoning skills required by IQ tests (and SATs and ACTs and the whole alphabet soup of standardized tests).

I had one student, “Alice,” who was test-smart but not creative; another, “Barbara,” who was highly creative but not nearly as test-smart as Alice; and yet another student, “Celia,” who lacked Alice’s analytical skills and attitudes, and Barbara’s creative skills and attitudes, but who had tremendous practical intelligence (ie, common sense). So, I had to have the courage to defy myself and propose a new theory of intelligence, which I called triarchic, because it had three parts (analytical, creative, practical).

My work on intelligence and creativity was going well — until it wasn’t. I realized my theories were still incomplete. After a couple of decades of the 21st century, it became clear to me that intelligence and creativity, in themselves, were not nearly as wonderful as I had thought they were.

All those books and papers I had written — and many others had written as well — seemed to be missing a fundamental point. Much of intelligence and creativity were being used for dark purposes. Creative professionals were using their creativity to addict people to nicotine, alcohol, various illegal drugs, and social media that was increasing toxicity in society and even causing people to harm themselves. 

As Arthur Cropley and others realized, dark creativity was a serious threat to the future of the world. Narcissistic use of creativity (and, as I have argued in a submitted paper, intelligence) literally can and might destroy the world. Intelligence and creativity without wisdom — the search for a common good — can be dangerous.

The world does not need more seriously smart and creative people who are using their talents to advance themselves but also to take down others in the process
By 2021, I had written a paper on what I called “transformational creativity,” and I now have an edited book in press with Professor Sareh Karami on this topic. 

Transformational creativity is wise creativity. It is creativity that makes the world a better place. It is creativity directed toward a common good. 

Why is transformational creativity important? Because so much creativity is going toward truly bad ends. How much positive creativity does one see these days in the seat of US government, and how much negative creativity?

What the world needs today is not just creativity but, rather, transformational creativity that is oriented toward achieving a common good that will make the world a better place for us all
Transformational creativity does not seem to be commonplace in the world today. It is so much easier just to look out for one’s own interests.

In a 2022 paper I wrote with Professor Lubart, we argued for the importance, in creativity, of integrity. Creativity with integrity means that one’s ideas are consistent with each other and that they do not just fly off into outer space. One ensures that the ideas correspond with reality — not a fantasy we imagine, or wish were true. Politicians, please take note!

Transformational creativity is so hard not because people lack creativity, but rather because there is so much pressure not to do the right thing—actually to thwart the common good through a lack of integrity
In other words, courage is hard.

At various points in all our lives, we face the hard decision of whether we will, as a book title once put it, just “look out for #1.”  With the serious problems the world faces — pollution, climate change, budding autocrats, weapons of mass destruction, school shootings, racism, xenophobia — we just cannot afford to keep turning out students whose main credentials are their high GPAs, standardized test scores, or preprogrammed extracurricular activities. What we all need most is transformational creativity: the courage to seek a common good in the face of the obstacles the world puts in front of us.

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This article originally appeared on Greater Good, the online magazine of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. Click here to read the original article.