Creativity Definition

Creativity can be defined three major ways. First, creativity can be viewed as a concrete product that satisfies two specifications: (1) originality or novelty, and (2) utility usefulness or adaptiveness. The first requirement excludes routine work that may be adaptive but habitual. The second separates creativity from the ideas of a psychotic; such ideas can be highly original but clearly maladaptive. The product may take many forms, such as a discovery, invention, painting, poem, song, design, or recipe. Second, creativity can be defined with respect to the cognitive process that generates creative products. This process may include intuition, imagination, incubation, free association, insight, heuristic search, and the like. Third, the concept can be defined relative to the creative person who has the capacity and the willingness to apply the process that yields the products. This personal disposition toward creativity may entail a set of cognitive abilities, motives, interests, values, and personality traits.

Social Psychology of Creativity

CreativityWhether creativity is viewed as product, process, or person, it is evident that there is nothing inherently social about creativity. It is most often viewed as an utterly individual phenomenon. As a consequence, for a considerable time social psychologists did not consider creativity to be a mainstream research area. Instead, most of the publications on the subject were conceived by investigators in cognitive, personality, educational, and applied psychology. This peripheral status notwithstanding, many aspects of creativity do feature a conspicuous social dimension. The social nature of creativity was first recognized by sociologists and cultural anthropologists, some of whom went so far as to argue that creativity was entirely a social event, thereby rendering individual psychology irrelevant. For example, the phenomenon of multiple discovery—where two or more scientists independently and sometimes simultaneously arrive at the same idea—was often cited as positive proof of this extreme position. Such episodes were said to reflect the causal impact of the sociocultural milieu, or zeitgeist. In any case, it is ironic that most of the early research on creativity was conducted either by non-social psychologists or by non-psychological social scientists. The middle, and potentially integrating perspective, was missing.

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This entry illustrates the sociopsychological aspects of creativity by looking briefly at the following phenomena: the sociocultural milieu, group dynamics, social influence, interpersonal relationships, and personality.

Sociocultural Milieu of Creativity

As noted earlier, many sociologists and cultural anthropologists have tended to view creativity as a sociocultural rather than individual phenomenon. This sociological reductionism is clearly invalid. After all, creativity almost invariably emerges out of individual minds. Nevertheless, it remains true that creativity often depends on the zeitgeist. That zeitgeist has two kinds of effects. First, it influences the amount of creativity that appears in a particular time and place. For example, certain sociocultural conditions favor tremendous spurts of creative activity, as those seen in the Golden Age of Greece or in Renaissance Italy. Second, the zeitgeist can affect the qualitative nature of that creativity—the type of creativity that is most favored. For instance, creativity takes a different form depending on whether the culture is individualistic or collectivistic in basic orientation. In an individualistic zeitgeist, originality or novelty tends to have greater weight than does utility or adaptiveness, whereas the reverse is true in a collectivistic zeitgeist. The effect of individualistic versus collectivistic conditions tend to be long lasting. Such cultural values do not come and go very quickly. Yet other sociocultural effects are much more volatile or transient. That is, creativity can be influenced by momentary fluctuations in political, economic, social, or cultural events. For instance, scientific creativity is adversely affected by assassinations, coups d’etat, military mutinies, and other forms of political anarchy. Of even greater interest are events that enhance the cultural heterogeneity or diversity of a society. These events include nationalistic revolts as well as the influx of alien ideas through immigration or foreign travel. Although these findings were based on analyses of archival data, the positive relation between cultural diversity and creativity has also been found in laboratory experiments on group creativity.

Another issue that falls under this heading concerns the relation between creativity and a person’s socio-cultural status, especially standing with respect to gender and ethnicity. For example, investigators have examined how opportunities for creative achievement among women and specific minorities are shaped by social norms and cultural values. These investigations provide the counterargument to those who may advocate biological explanations for group differences in creative behavior.

Creativity and Group Dynamics

Popular culture often projects the image of the “lone genius,” working away in isolation, whether in lab or studio, on some great scientific discovery or artistic creation. Yet this image is very misleading. A great deal of creativity, on the contrary, involves collaborations. This is most apparent in the sciences, where contributions are made by research teams within and among laboratories. Yet even in the arts, collaborations are not uncommon, especially in cinematic creativity. As a result, it is essential to understand how creativity operates in group settings. Social psychologists have investigated this problem three major ways. First, and most commonly, investigators have examined problem solving in experimental groups. A prime instance is the extensive literature on brainstorming. Second, some investigators have taken advantage of archival data to determine the factors that enhance or hinder group creativity. An example is research on social loafing that determines whether individuals working together are less creative than the same individuals working alone. Third, and least common, are field studies of actual group creativity in which the investigator analyzes member interactions. For instance, researchers have scrutinized the patterns of communications that characterize laboratories that generate high-impact findings.

Creativity and Social Influence

Even when a creator is working as an individual rather than collaborating with other creators in a group, the person will often still be operating in a social context. That social environment can then influence the extent of creativity manifested by the individual. For example, a considerable amount of research has been conducted on the repercussions of rewards, evaluations, surveillance, and other circumstances. Much of this work has focused on the impact of intrinsic and extrinsic incentives for performing a task. Creativity usually seems to be more nurtured when a task is motivated by inherent enjoyment rather by some external motivation that has nothing to do with the specific task. Nonetheless, under certain conditions, extrinsic motivation can contribute to the enhancement of individual creativity. This benefit is particularly likely when the extrinsic incentives function as informational feedback rather than as the imposition of some external control.

In addition to affecting the amount of creativity a person displays, the social setting also can sway how much creativity is attributed to a particular product or person. After all, the attribution of creativity, like other kinds of attributions, represents a subjective judgment that is subject to various cues. Hence, some social psychologists have studied the information that determines whether a given individual or act is judged as being creative—information that may have only a very peripheral relation to creativity itself.

Creativity and Interpersonal Relationships

Another social aspect involves the way the creative product, process, or person is contingent on identifiable patterns of interpersonal relationships. Most typically, creativity is promoted when a creator interacts with other creators. For instance, most creative scientists and artists belong to rich social networks with other scientists or artists. These networks may include collaborators, associates, correspondents, rivals, competitors, and even friends. The richer and more diverse the network is, the higher the creative productivity and longevity tend to be. In addition, the development of creative potential very much depends on establishing a long-term relationship with a mentor, master, or role model. Just as models can serve to amplify a person’s aggressive tendencies, so too can models help an individual fully realize his or her capacity for creativity. It is no accident that recipients of the Nobel Prize have a high probability of having studied under previous Nobel laureates.

Even though creative individuals are very involved in such professional relationships, their involvement in personal relationships is often much less pronounced. As a consequence, their rates of divorce are often somewhat higher than in the general population. This negative effect is especially conspicuous for creators in the arts, humanities, and social sciences.

Creativity and Personality

Although not the main thrust of most sociopsychological research, some social psychologists are interested in how individual-difference variables amplify, moderate, or diminish the impact of social variables on personal behavior. Examples include individual differences regarding the Big Five personality traits (especially Extraversion); the achievement, affiliation, and power motives, authoritarianism, Machiavellianism, narcissism; the need for cognition; self-esteem; shyness; social anxiety; and Type A personality. Cross-sectional variation in creativity is no less important as a socially significant variable. In the first place, personal creativity exhibits positive or negative correlations with several variables of acknowledged consequence in social psychology (e.g., authoritarianism, extraversion, and Type A personality). Even more importantly, a creative disposition also directly modifies the influence of social context on individual thought, emotion, and action. For example, experimental research has shown that highly creative individuals are more resistant to conformity pressures. Creators thus display more independence than is typical of most participants in sociopsychological research. This autonomy is probably essential to innovative behavior.


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