Tuesday, March 04, 2014

10 Misconceptions about Creativity

Lara, painting. She says
it's a snake and a trash can.

The American psyche is deeply traumatized by the finding that creativity scores of children and adults have been constantly declining since 1990. The consequence is a flood of advice on how to be more creative, books and seminars and websites. There’s no escaping the message: Get creative, now!

Science needs a creative element, and so every once in a while I read these pieces that come by my newsfeed. But they’re like one of these mildly pleasant songs that stop making sense when you listen to the lyrics. Clap your hands if you’re feeling like a room without a ceiling.

It’s not like I know a terrible lot about research on creativity. I’m sure there must be some research on it, right? But most of what I read isn’t even logically coherent.
  1. Creativity means solving problems.

    The NYT recently wrote in an article titled “Creativity Becomes an Academic Discipline”:
    “Once considered the product of genius or divine inspiration, creativity — the ability to spot problems and devise smart solutions — is being recast as a prized and teachable skill.”
    Yes, creativity is an essential ingredient to solving problems, but equating creativity with problem solving is like saying curiosity is a device to kill cats. It’s one possible use, but it’s not the only use and there are other ways to kill cats.

    Creativity is in the first place about creation, the creation of something new and interesting. The human brain has two different thought processes to solve problems. One is to make use of learned knowledge and proceed systematically step by step. This is often referred to as ‘convergent thinking’ and dominantly makes use of the left side of the brain. The other process is a pattern-finding, a free association, often referred to as ‘divergent thinking’ which employs more brain regions on the right side. It normally kicks in only if the straight-forward left-brain attempt failed because it’s energetically more costly. Exactly what constitutes creative thinking is not well known, but most agree it is a combination of both of these thought processes.

    Creative thinking is a way to arrive at solutions to problems, yes. Or you might create a solution looking for a problem. Creativity is also an essential ingredient to art and knowledge discovery, which might or might not solve any problem.

  2. Creativity means solving problems better.

    It takes my daughter about half an hour to get dressed. First she doesn’t know how to open the buttons, then she doesn’t know how to close them. She’ll try to wear her pants as a cap and pull her socks over the jeans just to then notice the boots won’t fit.

    It takes me 3 minutes to dress her – if she lets me – not because I’m not creative but because it’s not a problem which calls for a creative solution. Problems that can be solved with little effort by a known algorithm are in most cases best solved by convergent thinking.

    Xkcd nails it:

    But Newsweek bemoans:
    “Preschool children, on average, ask their parents about 100 questions a day. Why, why, why—sometimes parents just wish it’d stop. Tragically, it does stop. By middle school they’ve pretty much stopped asking.”
    There’s much to be said about schools not teaching children creative thinking – I agree it’s a real problem. But the main reason children stop asking question is that they learn. And somewhat down the line they learn how to find answers themselves. The more we learn, the more problems we can address with known procedures.

    There’s a priori nothing wrong with solving problems non-creatively. In most cases creative thinking just wastes time and brain-power. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel every day. It’s only when problems do not give in to standard solutions that a creative approach becomes useful.

  3. Happiness makes you creative.

    For many people the problem with creative thought is the lack of divergent thinking. If you look at the advice you find online, they’re almost all guides to divergent thinking, not to creativity: “Don’t think. Let your thoughts unconsciously bubble away.” “Sourround yourself with inspiration”Be open and aware. Play and pretend. List unusual uses for common household objects.” And so on. Happiness then plays a role for creativity because there is some evidence that happiness makes divergent thinking easier:
    “Recent studies have shown […] that everyday creativity is more closely linked with happiness than depression. In 2006, researchers at the University of Toronto found that sadness creates a kind of tunnel vision that closes people off from the world, but happiness makes people more open to information of all kinds.”
    Writes Bambi Turner who has a business degree and writes stuff. Note the vague term “closely linked” and look at the research.

    It is a study showing that people who listened to Bach’s (“happy”) Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 were better solving a word puzzle that required divergent thinking. In science speak the result reads “positive affect enhanced access to remote associates, suggesting an increase in the scope of semantic access.” Let us not even ask about the statistical significance of a study with 24 students of the University of Toronto in their lunch break, or its relevance for real life. The happy people participating this study were basically forced to think divergently. In real life happiness might instead divert you from hacking on a problem.

    In summary, the alleged “close link” should read: There is tentative evidence that happiness increases your chances of being creative in a laboratory setting, if you are among those who lack divergent thinking and are student at the University of Toronto.

  4. Creativity makes you happy.

    There’s very little evidence that creativity for the sake of creativity improves happiness. Typically it’s arguments of plausibility like this that solving a problem might improve your life generally:
    “creativity allows [people] to come up with new ways to solve problems or simply achieve their goals.”
    That is plausible indeed, but it doesn’t take into account that being creative has downsides that counteract the benefits.

    This blog is testimony to my divergent thinking. You might find this interesting in your news feed, but ask my husband what fun it is to have a conversation with somebody who changes topic every 30 seconds because it’s all connected! I’m the nightmare of your organizing committee, of your faculty meeting, and of your carefully assembled administration workflow. Because I know just how to do everything better and have ten solutions to every problem, none of which anybody wants to hear. It also has the downside that I can only focus on reading when I’m tired because otherwise I’ll never get though a page. Good thing all my physics lectures were early in the morning.

    Thus, I am very skeptic of the plausibility argument that creativity makes you happy. If you look at the literature, there is in fact very little that has shown to lastingly increase people’s happiness at all. Two known procedures that have proved some effect in studies is showing gratitude and getting to know ones’ individual strengths.

    For more evidence that speaks against the idea that creativity increases happiness, see 7 and 8. There is some evidence that happiness and creativity are correlated, because both tend to be correlated with other character traits, like openness and cognitive flexibility. However, there is also evidence to the contrary, that creative people have a tendency to depression: “Although little evidence exists to link artistic creativity and happiness, the myth of the depressed artist has some scientific basis.” I’d call this inconclusive. Either way, correlations are only of so much use if you want to actively change something.

  5. Creativity will solve all our problems.

    “All around us are matters of national and international importance that are crying out for creative solutions, from saving the Gulf of Mexico to bringing peace to Afghanistan to delivering health care. Such solutions emerge from a healthy marketplace of ideas, sustained by a populace constantly contributing original ideas and receptive to the ideas of others.”
    [From Newsweek again.] I don’t buy this at all. It’s not that we lack creative solutions, just look around, look at TED if you must. We’re basically drowning in creativity, my inbox certainly is. But they’re solutions to the wrong problems.

    (One of the reasons is that we simply do not know what a “healthy marketplace of ideas” is even supposed to mean, but that’s a different story and shell be told another time.)

  6. You can learn to be creative if you follow these simple rules.

    You don’t have to learn creative thinking, it comes with your brain. You can however train it if you want to improve, and that’s what most of the books and seminars want to sell. It’s much like running. You don’t have to learn to run. Everybody who is reasonably healthy can run. How far and how fast you can run depends on your genes and on your training. There is some evidence that creativity has a genetic component and you can’t do much about this. However, you can work on the non-genetic part of it.

  7. “To live creatively is a choice.”

    This is a quote from the WSJ essay “Think Inside the Box.” I don’t know if anybody ever looked into this in a scientific way, it seems a thorny question. But anecdotally it’s easier to increase creativity than to decrease it and thus it seems highly questionable that this is correct, especially if you take into account the evidence that it’s partially genetic. Many biographies of great writers and artists speak against this, let me just quote one:
    “We do not write because we want to; we write because we have to.”
    W. Somerset Maugham, English dramatist and novelist (1874 - 1965).

  8. Creativity will make you more popular.

    People welcome novelty only in small doses and incremental steps. The wilder your divergent leaps of imagination, the more likely you are to just leave people behind you. Creativity might be a potential source for popularity in that at least you have something interesting to offer, but too much of it won’t do any good. You’ll end up being the misunderstood unappreciated genius whose obituary says “ahead of his times”.

  9. Creativity will make you more successful.

    Last week, the Washington post published this opinion piece which informs the reader that:
    “Not for centuries has physics been so open to metaphysics, or more amenable to an ancient attitude: a sense of wonder about things above and within.”
    This comes from a person named Michael Gerson who recently opened Max Tegmark’s book and whose occupation seems to be, well, to write opinion pieces. I’ll refrain from commenting on the amenability of professions I know nothing about, so let me just say that he has clearly never written a grant proposal. I warmly recommend you put the word “metaphysics” into your next proposal to see what I mean. I think you should all do that because I clearly won’t, so then maybe I stand a chance then in the next round.

    Most funding agencies have used the 2008 financial crisis as an excuse to focus on conservative and applied research to the disadvantage of high risk and basic research. They really don’t want you to be creative – the “expected impact” is far too remote, the uncertainty too high. They want to hear you’ll use this hammer on that nail and when you’ve been hitting at it for 25 months and two weeks, out will pop 3 papers and two plenary talks. Open to metaphysics? Maybe Gerson should have a chat with Tegmark.

    There is indeed evidence showing that people are biased against creativity to the favor of practicality, even if they state they welcome creativity. This study relied on 140 American undergraduate students. (Physics envy, anybody?) The punchline is that creative solutions by their very nature have a higher risk of failure than those relying on known methods and this uncertainty is unappealing. It is particularly unappealing when you are coming up with solutions to problems that nobody wanted you to solve.

    So maybe being creative will make you successful. Or maybe your ideas will just make everybody roll their eyes.

  10. The internet kills creativity.

    The internet has made life difficult for many artists, writers, and self-employed entrepreneurs, and I see a real risk that this degrades the value of creativity. However, it isn’t true that the mere availability of information kills creativity. It just moves it elsewhere. The internet has made many tasks that previously required creative approaches to step-by-step procedures. Need an idea for a birthday cake? Don’t know how to fold a fitted sheet? Want to know how to be more creative? Google will tell you. This frees your mind to get creative on tasks that Google will not do for your. In my eyes, that’s a good thing. 
So should you be more creative?

My summary of reading all these articles is that if you feel like your life lacks something, you should take score of your strengths and weaknesses and note what most contributes to your well-being. If you think that you are missing creative outlets, by all means, try some of these advice pages and get going. But do it for yourself and not for others, because creativity is not remotely as welcome as they want you to believe.

On that note, here’s the most recent of my awesomely popular musical experiments:


  1. Very nice corrective to the fetishizing of creativity (or, rather, a limited conception thereof). But I disagree with you about children! Why would they stop asking questions because they learn? That contradicts everything else you've ever written! Learning should lead them to ask new questions. If you want to know why they stop asking, see your points #4 and #8.

  2. Nah, all those creativity problems in USA will get solved rather quickly once children get some more practice in solving the creativity tests themselves...

    It's like intelligence testing --- if you just practice by solving 3-4 different tests per day, after a month you can markedly boost your IQ score, thus making any statistician in your school/town/country more happy. :-)

    Learning to cheat the creativity tests is arguably the most creative way to go about increasing a nation's creativity. ;-)

    Best, :-)

  3. http://www.southampton.ac.uk/~jps7/Lecture%20notes/TRIZ%2040%20Principles.pdf
    TRIZ, the art of inventive problem solving.

    Discovery disciplines management rewarded for enforcing process not creating product. Creativity does it the "other" way, violating Korporate Kulture. Creativity quantitates insubordination. Hewlett-Packard summarily rejected Stephen Wozniak's Apple motherboard, for it did nothing.

    Department of Education schooling is useless, kills inspiration and curiosity, is mind-numbingly tedious, makes no connections to anything, and is forgotten immediately after the test. Add diversity, "no child left behind," and "everybody goes to college." Two undeserving socially defective White males were vomited from a Montessori School. They eventually applied eigenfunctions to database searches, violated Stanford's degree-granting process, publicly misspelled "googol," and boast they "do no harm."

    Creativity is Staatsfeindheit. Consume the universe. (Is the vacuum really achiral isotropic toward enantiomorphic hadron self-similar mass distributions? Somebody should look.)

  4. Don't forget the good old Thomas A. Edison: "Genious is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration." (and some cite et even as 1 vs. 99%)

    Creativity evolves in human work and learning, which is the work of children and teenagers in the first line. One of the worst things and the biggest waste in our time is not to provide excellent education and work at all to people. In that sense, all articles in journals are discussions of details that cannot cure the problem.

  5. Tangentially related to your post, in engineering work, myself and others used to get told by upper management types to "think outside the box", and I disliked it a lot. Now, I know where the phrase comes from (the nine-dot puzzle) and it makes sense in that situation, but usually not in engineering. In engineering, I think of "the box" as containing millions of ideas handed down over the millenia which were, probably not perfect, but somewhat successful; whereas outside the box are perhaps many great ideas that haven't been tried or recorded - but for sure, billions of ideas that were tried and were not successful.

    Every time an upper manager asked me something like, "Wouldn't it be cheaper if we did it this way instead", the idea they were proposing was one of the latter type.

  6. You have to have the willingness to be puzzled?

    Chomsky lays it out there for you but in a different way. You want to leave "a gap" in your thinking, right?

  7. He talks about much earlier....while I showed a later Q&A answer to 40:40

  8. George,

    My remark about children refers specifically to the statement 'They ask their parents 100 questions a day'. What I mean is if they learn, many questions become redundant and the questions they are left with become increasingly more difficult to answer. I'm not saying children stop having questions. I am saying they have fewer questions that they'll ask their parents and there's nothing unusual about that. Best,


  9. Marko,

    Yes, I agree with you... As I wrote in this earlier post, the idea that you can teach creativity seems in itself an oxymoron, it'll just move the 'creative' element elsewhere. Take this example with the 'alternative uses for household equipment' (and similar examples). You do this a few times, you'll find some ways that deliver 'creative' results quickly. Best,


  10. Michael,

    Yes, as I wrote, the divergent thinking (the 'inspiration') is part of it, but it's generally acknowledged that's not all of it. Alas, most of the 'advice' that I read is for the inspiration, not the perspiration, unless you want to count the ubiquitous advice to carry a notebook to pin down your great ideas. (There's an app for that...) My approach is mostly if you forget your great idea it probably wasn't all that great. Best,


  11. JimV,

    Yes, that counts to the risk-factor. You're likely to just reproduce other people's mistakes. That risk increases substantially if these mistakes are not on record (which is one of the reasons why I think negative results should be published). Best,


  12. Creativity is often similar to..



  13. This topic seems especially difficult for me to make creative commentary on.
    It puts my world view on pause or as reflection on a myth stops it dead. It turns out a deeply important issue.
    The story begins let the kids run but sloe them down to learn deep observation. Then not reward just copy cat behavior. The middle becomes confused and too trite to share. But the ending sums it all for now :
    In a world where inquirey is not possible we find a world where creativity is impossible.

  14. An interesting aspect of this is that most scientists are very good people, very smart, logical, big well developed left brains who tend to have underdeveloped intuitive brains,
    which undermines their creativity. Many have no clue about their biases and think they are "logical". Recent neurological science results
    are revealing. Not surprisingly, many of the underappreciate the creativity.

  15. You are a virtuoso. To help readers understand - an analogy to music is made.

    Music virtuosos recognize all pieces of music and know the room for improvement for all masterpieces always exists.

    Gravity is no different.
    Keep playing.
    Grants aside.

  16. Ha, Ha, Ha, Xkcd needs to learn structured design techniques!

    When people tell someone to "think outside the box" what they're really saying is to properly define the boundaries of the problem at hand. In my own experience, creativity is the easy part, figuring out how to practically realize your creative idea within the constraints at hand often involves more creative thinking than the original idea itself; and then, of course, you have to figure out how to keep all of the corporate thieves with their Ivy League MBAs but absolutely no knack for creative problem solving from stealing everything . . .

    According to Goeth's Faust, the creative act is the only thing that makes life worthwhile; I tend to agree most of the time. What it is, really, is that moment of clarity that just plows into the ole cranium from seemingly nowhere. It doesn't really matter whether it's seeing a new painting, a novel technical design, a novel logic stream, a novel mathematical proof, whatever, it all comes down to that moment of clarity - true spirituality! And of course creativity seems to require a maintained state of dissatisfaction: "Ah, baby, no one who can write worth a damn can ever write in peace," said author and poet, Charles Bukowski. Creativity also requires a great deal of courage, a kind of fearlessness bordering on arrogance . . .

  17. I remember one study asked people at an organization to identify other people whom they considered most creative. Then, they interviewed those people to find their secret. Interestingly, those people regarded their own approaches to problem solving as the most conventional.

    I always think of the old aphorism: You don't have to be different to be good. Being good is different enough.


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