Understanding the Psychology of Creativity

Creative children drawing on wall

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What is creativity? Creativity involves the ability to develop new ideas or utilize objects or information in novel ways. It can involve large-scale ideas that have the potential to change the world, such as inventing tools that impact how people live, or smaller acts of creation such as figuring out a new way to accomplish a task in your daily life.

This article explores what creativity is and when it is most likely to happen. It also covers some of the steps that you can take to improve your own creativity.

What Is Creativity?

Studying creativity can be a tricky process. Not only is creativity a complex topic in and of itself, but there is also no clear consensus on how exactly to define creativity. Many of the most common definitions suggest that creativity is the tendency to solve problems or create new things in novel ways.

Two of the primary components of creativity include:

  1. Originality: The idea should be something new that is not simply an extension of something else that already exists.
  2. Functionality: The idea needs to actually work or possess some degree of usefulness.

When Does Creativity Happen?

In his book Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi suggested that creativity can often be seen in a few different situations.

  • People who seem stimulating, interesting, and have a variety of unusual thoughts.
  • People who perceive the world with a fresh perspective, have insightful ideas and make important personal discoveries. These individuals make creative discoveries that are generally known only to them.
  • People who make great creative achievements that become known to the entire world. Inventors and artists such as Thomas Edison and Pablo Picasso would fall into this category.

Types of Creativity

Experts also tend to distinguish between different types of creativity. The “four c” model of creativity suggests that there are four different types:

  1. “Mini-c” creativity involves personally meaningful ideas and insights that are known only to the self.
  2. Little-c” creativity involves mostly everyday thinking and problem-solving. This type of creativity helps people solve everyday problems they face and adapt to changing environments.
  3. “Pro-C” creativity takes place among professionals who are skilled and creative in their respective fields. These individuals are creative in their vocation or profession but do not achieve eminence for their works.
  4. “Big-C” creativity involves creating works and ideas that are considered great in a particular field. This type of creativity leads to eminence and acclaim and often leads to world-changing creations such as medical innovations, technological advances, and artistic achievements.

What Does It Take to Be Creative?

Csikszentmihalyi suggests that creative people tend to possess are ​a variety of traits that contribute to their innovative thinking. Some of these key traits include:

  • Energy: Creative people tend to possess a great deal of both physical and mental energy. However, they also tend to spend a great deal of time quietly thinking and reflecting.
  • Intelligence: Psychologists have long believed that intelligence plays a critical role in creativity. In Terman’s famous longitudinal study of gifted children, researchers found that while high IQ was necessary for great creativity, not all people with high IQs are creative. Csikszentmihalyi believes that creative people must be smart, but they must be capable of looking at things in fresh, even naïve, ways.
  • Discipline: Creative people do not just sit around waiting for inspiration to strike. They ​are playful, yet they are also disciplined in the pursuit of their work and passions.

Creativity and the Big Five

Certain personality traits are also connected to creativity. According to the big five theory of personality, human personality is made up of five broad dimensions:

Each dimension represents a continuum, so for each trait, people can be either high, low, or somewhere between the two. 

Openness to experience is a big five trait that is correlated with creativity. People who are high on this trait are more open to new experiences and ideas. They tend to seek novelty and enjoy trying new things, meeting new people, and considering different perspectives. 

However, other personality traits and characteristics can also play a role in creativity. For example, intrinsic motivation, curiosity, and persistence can all determine how much people tend to pursue new ideas and look for novel solutions.

How to Increase Creativity

While some people seem to come by creativity naturally, there are things that you can do to increase your own creativity.

Some strategies that can be helpful for improving creativity include: 

  • Being open to new ideas: Openness to experience is the personality trait that is most closely correlated with creativity. Focus on being willing to try new things and explore new ideas.
  • Be persistent: Creativity is not just about sitting around waiting for inspiration to strike. Creative people spend time working to produce new things. Their efforts don't always work out, but continued practice builds skills that contribute to creativity.
  • Make time for creativity: In addition to being persistent, you also need to devote time specifically toward creative efforts. This might mean setting aside a little time each day or each week specifically to brainstorm, practice, learn, or create.

Csikszentmihalyi has noted that creativity requires both a fresh perspective combined with discipline. As Thomas Edison famously suggested, genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.

A Word From Verywell

Creativity is a complex subject and researchers are still working to understand exactly what factors contribute to the ability to think creatively. While some people seem to come by creativity naturally, there are also things you can do to build and strengthen this ability.

The late Maya Angelou also suggested that thinking creativity helps foster even greater creativity, "The important thing is to use it. You can’t use up creativity. The more you use it, the more you have," she suggested.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What part of the brain controls creativity?

    Creativity does not reside in one single area of the brain; many areas are actually involved. The frontal cortex of the brain is responsible for many of the functions that play a part in creativity.

    However, other parts of the brain impact creativity as well, including the hippocampus (which is important to memory) and the basal ganglia (which is essential in the memory of how to perform tasks). The white matter of the brain, which keeps the various parts of the brain connected, is also essential for creative thinking.

  • Can you increase your creativity or improve it?

    Research suggests that people can train their brains to be more creative. Engaging in cognitively stimulating tasks, going on a walk, finding sources of inspiration, and meditating are a few strategies that may help boost creative thinking abilities. 

  • What are the big five personality traits?

    The "big five" are the broad categories of traits that make up personality. The five dimensions are openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Each trait involves a range between two extremes, and people can be either at each end or somewhere in the middle.

7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."