Creativity is More Than a Trait: It’s a Relation

The Great  Trait

Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911), a cousin of Charles Darwin and a jack-of-all-trades in the sciences, believed that the variation observed in human intellect was controlled by genetically-determined, biological processes. To test his hypothesis, he investigated men of distinguished talent and counted the number of eminent male relatives they had (Galton, 1865). Assuming “talent and character” are only passed on from fathers to sons, he proposed that if intellectual ability is indeed hereditary, such men must have more prominent relatives than found distributed in the general population. Although Galton did not speak ofcreativity, he used the synonym genius which stood for all intellectual capacities and perseverance.

About a century later and without hereditary reasoning, Guilford (1950) began working on a concept to describe intelligence as a multi-dimensional, non-hierarchical  trait. The resulting structure of intellect (Guilford, 1956) encompasses three main dimensions describing the (a) input, (b) operations and (c) output of intellectual abilities. The operations include  divergent production, the mental process of generating more than one solution to a given task. This mental process is similar to what many researchers call  creativityGuilford (1950) planned to test  divergent production, or divergent thinking as it is often called, with paper-and-pencil tests. Although admitting this kind of behavior represents “lower degrees of distinction” (ibid., p. 445), it would be an opportunity to collect larger samples than the ones of eminent creators previously investigated.

The noteworthy contributions made by Galton and Guilford are exemplary for two kinds of individual, or  trait, perspectives oncreativity, “big C” and “small c”  creativity (cf. Amabile, 1996; Sawyer, 2006). The term “big C” is used to describe eminent creators. These are people who have literally gone down in history for their achievements, such as Nobel Prize winners and renowned musicians. However, the world is full of people who do creative work without large-scale public recognition, and the term “small c” is reserved for describing such creators. Boden (2004) makes a similar distinction when she defines historical and individual  creativity. A historical creative act is one which has never occurred before to humankind’s knowledge, and individual  creativity is reserved for acts which are new to the person creating, but not necessarily new to humankind in general.

Apart from intellectual abilities, certain personality characteristics have been consistently related to creative performance, such as openness to experience, impulsivity, ambition, nonconformity, flexibility and autonomy (Feist, 1999). Openness to experience is one of five major personality traits (McCrae & John, 1992) and it correlates with performance in divergent thinking tests (McCrae, 1987). Individuals open to experience are, for example, intellectually curious, imaginative, sensitive to their inner feelings, aesthetically oriented and flexible in thought.

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