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

In returning to the relational definition of  creativity, this means behavioral outcomes must be socially validated in order to be deemed creative. However, this does not mean to say individuals are only productive when the outcome is creative. Their behavioral outcomes may be numerous as well as original, but if they are to be considered creative, i.e. novel and useful or valuable to the social environment, these products must be accepted by the  field (cf. Amabile, 1996; Sternberg & Lubart, 1999). This is what makes up the relational definition of  creativity. It refers to social evaluation processes after an individual has produced some behavioral outcome, and these are made on the basis of what already exists in the referential  domain. Once deemed creative by a respective  field, a behavioral outcome turns into cultural input, because it is accepted into the pool of memes existing in a particular  domain. In our example, the space scene will make school hallway history and it could influence future artists in next year’s contest.

In defining  creativity relationally, the scientific focus moves from solely assessing individual, process, product or environmental properties to a higher, more dynamic level of observation. We define  creativity as the variable outcome of an evaluative process conducted by a relevant social group or  field. Reducing  creativity to a  trait or skill, i.e. an individual quality existent or not, means overlooking what this phenomenon could be for social scientists: a research topic undoubtedly modeled by socio-environmental parameters. Furthermore, the influence of social variables is spiral. In resuming the children’s artwork example, the art teacher jury (relevant  field) decides which kinds of pictures are creative enough for the school’s hallways. In doing so, they are using judgmental criteria based on information already available in their  domain, e.g. the quality of children’s artwork they have seen before. Yet at the same time, they are reshaping the  domain by making their present selection. If, for instance, the teachers find pictures with abstract motifs to be the most creative, this socially-produced information will shape the way children design their pictures in the future, thereby influencing the personal background of those creating individuals. In the artwork example, the relevant  domain is children’s art culture at a particular school. Domains could also be represented by existing cultures, such as the Eastern and Western described in an earlier In-Mind article by Chiu and Leung (2007), and just as the evaluations of school art teachers may differ, so may those of differing cultures when it comes to tasting innovative food.

Social groups play an integral part in establishing  creativity. Their perception and evaluation processes may be hard to decipher in an increasingly networked world, but ignoring this complexity does not necessarily facilitate scientific comprehension ofcreativity. This notion implies adopting a relational approach to investigating it. And taking the phenomenon for what we make of it: a dynamical construct based on social stimulation and judgment processes.


Albert, R. & Runco, M. (1999). A history of research on creativity. In J. Sternberg (Ed.), Handbook of creativity (pp. 16-34). Cambridge, UK: University Press.


article author(s)