Creativity is simply the ability to look at one thing and see another. All creativity involves combining and recombining previously known elements into unique configurations. How does this process occur? What makes the creative genius different from the average person? What do innovative people have that others don't have, or at least are not using? How can creativity be developed in every person?

Most people think creativity in one of two ways:

  1. an activity that is held apart from the person and out of the individual's control, or
  2. the creative person is perhaps a bit insane, but most certainly weird.
However, a third view is increasingly more common in recent years: creativity is latent in all of us and it just needs to be brought out.1

Each of these three perceptions of creativity is supported by at least one major theoretical framework. The theories are entitled creativity as a function of behavior, of personality, and of cognitive processes, respectively. The work of B.F. Skinner will represent the behavioral viewpoint, while Abraham Maslow's ideas will illustrate the personality or humanist perception. These two individuals will provide some useful insight into the functioning of the creative person.

The third major theoretical framework examines creativity as a cognitive process. Five different views of the cognitive processes underlying creativity are described below.

Behaviorist View of Creativity

The behaviorist believes a person is not an initiating force in the creative act, but rather a focal point where environmental and genetic forces come together to have a common effect. Skinner states that the environment acts upon the individual

"...determining that he will perceive it (the environment) and act in special ways."2

Skinner supports his statements with an example from biology: the mother supplies protection, warmth, and nourishment, but she doesn't design the baby who profits from these. The baby is a product of its genetic heritage. The poet, also, is a product of his past history and the poem occurs to him in bits and pieces. The analogy breaks down because the poet can accept or reject the bits and pieces where the mother cannot, but the poet doesn't willfully generate them. They bubble forth as a product of the poet's past environment.

This does not mean to say that there is no creation--there is in the sense that the product is new--but the autonomy, the volition of the perceived creative agent is suspect. Skinner concludes by saying the task is to analyze the genetic and environmental histories responsible for an individual's behavior and then to create an environment for creative behavior to occur.

Personality-Based Creativity

Maslow writes of creativity as an aspect of personality. This humanistic perspective states that creativity is a special perceptiveness on the part of certain individuals. These people

"live far more in the real world of nature than in the verbalized world of concepts, abstractions, beliefs, and stereotypes that most people confuse with the real world."3

That is to say such people can see the raw, the fresh, the concrete as well as the generic, the abstract, the categorized, and the classified. He terms these people self-actualized and characterizes them as having boldness, freedom, courage, and spontaneity. Creativity becomes an attitude shown throughout the daily life of the individual.

Other qualities used to describe the creative personality include self-confidence, independence, and openness to experience. They have a sense of humor and playful child-like attitude, a preference for complexity, an acceptance of disorder, and a tolerance of ambiguity.4

Cognitive Process Creativity

Creativity as a function of a cognitive process is illustrated by Osborn, Wallas, Gordon, Koestler, and Guilford. The term cognitive process means a volitional mental operation that can be learned in much the same way as solving a mathematical equation or speaking another language.

1st Viewpoint

Alex Osborn, a partner in a New York ad agency developed the two-mind theory of creativity. Each person has two minds. The Creative mind is the idea generator and acts through free association. The Judicial mind is a filter and acts in a step-by-step logical fashion. He noticed that some people consistently generate more and better ideas than others. He decided the reason was the dominance of the Creative mind. Creative people were able to "turn off" the Judicial mind and allow free association to occur. Osborn developed four rules to help less-creative individuals allow ideas to flow. Brainstorming was thus invented and became a success in corporate life almost overnight.

2nd Viewpoint

Prior to Osborn, creativity was believed to be contained wholly in the subconscious mind. But the subconscious was a sporadic and unpredictable source whose inner workings remained a mystery. The belief developed from reports of various creative people describing their experiences while creating. The mathematician Henry Poincare explains the typical creative breakthrough:

"For fifteen days I strove to prove that there could not be any functions like those I have since called Fuchsian functions ...every day I seated myself at my work table, stayed an hour or two, tried a great number of combinations and reached no results. One evening contrary to my custom, I drank black coffee and could not sleep. Ideas rose in crowds; I felt them collide until pairs interlocked making a stable combination. By the next morning I had established the existence of a class of Fuchsian functions ... I had only to write out the results..."5

These results led to the creative process model tendered by Graham Wallas. The stages are preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification. The creative individual begins by intensely concentrating upon the task at hand, maybe spending days or weeks trying to solve the problem analytically. When conscious work provides no further progress, the individual relaxes, or pursues something entirely different. During this period of incubation, the subconscious will ferment the problem. The illumination will burst upon the individual, full flown, when it is least expected. The verification stage requires conscious manipulation of the insight in order to use it.

This theory depicts the creative process as a 'blackbox' phenomena. It shows how an individual may try to use the subconscious, but doesn't provide enough information about its inner workings. A contemporary of Osborn's strove to discover the subconscious mechanism.

3rd Viewpoint

William J. Gordon, an executive of the consulting firm, Arthur D. Little, Inc., was convinced that creativity involved more than Osborn's two-mind theory. As leader of an elite creative team he began tape recording their sessions in order to see how the ideas emerged. He observed that as ideas were developed, each was expressed in terms of an analogy with a similar problem found in nature or elsewhere in life. Further research into some of history's most notable discoveries confirmed his conclusion. A case in point is the discovery of microorganisms by Louis Pasteur. Scientists of his day believed infections were caused by internal gases. Pasteur observed that grapes would ferment only when the skin was broken and the analogy led to his discovery.6

Metaphor is the mechanism of the creative process according to Gordon. He founded Synectics, Inc., based on this principle. He has continued to expand upon his original work from the 1950's and in the 1980's performed experiments to study how the conscious mind communicates with the subconscious. (Gordon and Poze, 1981)

The subconscious activity is evoked when conscious, verbal thinking is converted into an image which is allowed to be blurred and fuzzied-up by the subconscious. This is supported by studies on left brain-right brain specialization from psychology. The left brain is the center for verbal language and logical reasoning. The right brain functions as the center for spatial relationships and nonverbal activity using images. The left brain is the conscious mind while the right brain is the subconscious. Metaphor is the common ground between the two minds because it provides the vehicle for both verbal language and nonverbal images.7

4th Viewpoint

Arthur Koestler developed his views on creativity from the study of humor, literature, and biology. He defines creativity as the juxtaposition of two self-consistent, but habitually incompatible frames of reference in the physical, psychological, or social world.8 A humorous anecdote illustrates this principal:

Q: Where does a General keep his Armies?
A: In his sleevies.

The joke is a "cute" play on the definition of the word armies. It is most humorous to grade-school kids who will be caught up in the military frame of reference with the use of the words 'general' and 'armies'. Laughter occurs when the self-consistent frame of reference is switched to another self-consistent frame of reference using the key word, 'armies'. Now the perspective is of 'arms' in 'sleeves'. An unexpected answer is provided indicating a new frame of reference. The tension created by the unexpected switch is released in laughter.

                      x  M1                          xxxxx
                      x                              x  x
                      x            <->               x x
                      x             |                xx
                      xxxxxxxxxxx   L   xxxxxxxxxxxxxx
                    x              /               x x
                  x              <->              x  x
                x   M2                           x   x
              xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx    x
                      x                              x
                      x                              x

                                 Figure 1

             An Idea as the Focal Point of Two Reference Frames

This concept is pictured in Figure 1. The perception of a situation or idea, represented by "L", is at the junction of two self-consistent but habitually incompatible frames of reference or matrices, M1 and M2. The perception, L, vibrates on two wavelengths simultaneously and brings the frames of reference together. Koestler calls this bisociation. This is the essence of creativity.

There are two types of bisociative creativity:

1. Associative Routine or Habit
The type is characterized by repetitiveness, conservation, rigid to flexible variations on a theme, and associations developed only within the confines of one given matrix. This type of creation can lead to discovery, by an individual, of perceptions heretofore unknown to that person, but not new in the context of greater humanity. New discoveries and inventions in actual fact are the result of the second type of creativity.

2. Originality
The second type is named Originality and contains the following elements.
  1. the result is novel and entirely new.
  2. it is a destructive/constructive process that destroys old perceptions through new ones.
  3. the process is guided by the subconscious which normally is restrained.
  4. there is super-flexibility in variations and theme.
  5. it is the bisociation of independent matrices.9

The quality of the originality is the measure of the unlikeliness of the probable association of the matrices. The farther they are apart the greater is the creative achievement when they are associated together.

5th Viewpoint

J.P. Guilford's Model of the Intellect derived from his work in the field of education. This model describes several types of thinking functions. Certain combinations of those functions underly creativity. The model is composed of five kinds of operations and four kinds of material content that, when combined, result in six classes of products. Figure 2 illustrates the three parameters of this model as a cube.

                                            Figure 2

                               Guilford's Model of the Intellect

                                 /                               / |
                               /                               / | |
                             /                               / | / |
                           /                               / | / | |
                         /                               / | / |  /|
      CONTENT            ----------------------------- / | / |  /| |
        Figural         |     |     |     |     |     |  / |  /|  /|
                         ----------------------------- / |  /|  /| |       PRODUCTS
        Symbolic        |     |     |     |     |     |   /|  /|  /
                         -----------------------------  /|  /|  /      Implications
        Semantic        |     |     |     |     |     |   /|  /      Transformations
                         -----------------------------  /|  /      Systems
        Behavioral      |     |     |     |     |     |   /      Relations
                         -----------------------------  /      Classes
          OPERATIONS:               Divergent
                     Cognition       Thinking
                              Memory      Convergent

The Five Operations are
  1. Cognition - the discovery, rediscovery, or recognition of something.
  2. Memory - the ability to retain specific cognition.
  3. Divergent Thinking - the ability to move along different paths or directions from given information.
  4. Convergent Thinking - is the ability to bring together several pieces of information to a focal point of a single correct answer.
  5. Evaluation - the ability to make decisions based upon correctness, suitability, and adequacy.
The Four Categories of Content are
  1. Figural - refers to concrete material described by various properties such as size, form, color, and texture.
  2. Symbolic - content are letters, digits, and other signs used to represent objects or processes.
  3. Semantic - refers to verbal meanings and ideas.
  4. Behavioral - content is information in the form of actions, desires, thoughts, and feelings of other people which we can know and use in dealing with people.

The Products resulting from the association of the operations and content can be grouped into six categories.

  1. Units are basic elements or ideas. In the terminology of grammar, a unit functions in the same manner as a noun.
  2. Classes refer to groups of units with common elements.
  3. Relations are a connecting link between two units or classes. This link has its own character and is similar to the preposition in grammar. Examples are "married to" and "harder than."
  4. Systems are complexes or organizations of interdependent, interacting parts. Examples include an outline or a mathematical equation.
  5. Transformations occur when one item of information becomes something else. Participles describe this kind of product: shrinking or inverting.
  6. Implications are perceptions that can be predicted, expected, or anticipated from information.10

Guilford feels that creativity is part of the divergent, convergent, and evaluative thinking operations. It is measured by the flexibility, fluency, and originality of responses to a given problem situation. It is also measured by the sensitivity of an individual to a problem and the ability to redefine information.

Flexibility is the ability to break apart and reform different configurations of classes, relations, and systems. Fluency is measured by the sheer number of units produced. Originality is the ability to generate a variety of transformations. These three are part of the divergent thinking mode.

Sensitivity to problems is in the evaluative mode. The individual must be able to evaluate situations for unmet needs in order to bring about improvement. The convergent thinking mode is used to redefine information. The product is a transformation. A lot of creative effort is in the form of transforming something known into something not previously known.


The three major theoretical frameworks of creativity are the Behaviorist, Personality-based, and Cognitive Processes. The Behaviorists state creativity a product of one's environment and genetic make-up. To induce creative behavior, one must set up an environment to allow creativity to occur. The Personality-based view states that creativity is a special perceptiveness on the part of certain individuals. Finally, the Cognitive Process framework describe creativity as a thinking process implying it is a learned behavior that can be improved.


  1. Walter Kiechel, "Creative Ability", pg. 109-110.
  2. B.F. Skinner, "A Behavioral Model of Creation", pg. 269.
  3. A. Maslow, "Creativity in Self Actualizating People", pg. 88.
  4. D. Shallcross, Teaching Creative Behavior, pg. 10.
  5. D. Ghiselin, The Creative Process, pg. 36.
  6. Niles Howard, "Business Probes the Creative Spark", pg. 34.
  7. W. Gordon and T. Poze, "Conscious/Subconscious Interaction in a Creative Act", pg. 8.
  8. A. Koestler, "Bisociation in Creation", pg. 108.
  9. A. Koestler, "Bisociation in Creation", pg. 112-113.
  10. J. P. Guilford, "Creativity: Its Measurement and Development", pg. 160-161.


  • Ghiselin, Brewster, (ed), The Creative Process, New York: New American Library, 1952.
  • Gordon, William and Poze, Tony, "Conscious/Subconscious Interaction in a Creative Act," Journal of Creative Behavior, 1981, Vol. 15, No. 1, pp. 1-10.
  • Guilford, J.P., "Creativity: Its Measurement and Development," in Parnes and Harding, A Source Book for Creative Thinking, Section 14, pg. 151-168.
  • Howard, Niles, "Business Probes the Creative Spark", Dun's Review, January 1980, pp. 32-38.
  • Kiechel, W., "Creative Ability", Fortune, July 25, 1983, p. 109+.
  • Koestler, Arthur, "Bisociation in Creation," in Rothenberg and Hausman, The Creativity Question, pp. 108-113.
  • Maslow, Abraham, "Creativity in Self-Actualizing People," in Rothenberg and Hausman, The Creativity Question, pp. 86-92.
  • Parnes, Sidney and Harding, Harold, (ed), A Source Book for Creative Thinking, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1962.
  • Rothenberg, Albert and Hausman, Carl, The Creativity Question, Durham: Duke University Press, 1976.
  • Shallcross, Doris , Teaching Creative Behavior, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1981.
  • Skinner, B.F., "A Behavioral Model of Creation," in Rothenberg and Hausman, The Creativity Question, pp. 267-272.

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