The Flakiness Of Artists Is The Key To Their Creativity
In a post on his Scientific American blog, cognitive psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman writes about a study just published in Creativity Research Journal. Researchers Edward Necka and Teresa Hlawacz recruited 60 visual artists and 60 bank officers in Poland and gave both groups a variety of tests of temperament and of divergent thinking (a component of creativity involving the ability to generate many different possibilities).
“Bank officers were about as good at divergent thinking as the general population, whereas artists were amazingly good at flexibly generating original pictures and words. In fact, they were almost at ceiling! What about temperament? This is where things get really interesting. On the whole, artists didn’t substantially differ from bank tellers in their temperament. To get to the bottom of this finding, the researchers looked at the relationships between the various measures within each group.
Surprisingly, consistent relationships between divergent thinking and temperament were found only in the sample of artists. Among bank tellers, temperament was not related to divergent thinking. But among the artists, those scoring higher on the tests of divergent thinking tended to display higher levels of the following:
• Briskness (“quick responding to stimuli, high tempo of activity, and the ability to switch between actions”)
• Endurance (“an ability to behave efficiently and appropriately in spite of intense external stimulation or regardless of the necessity to pay attention during prolonged periods of time”)
• Activity (“the generalized tendency to initiate numerous activities that lead to, or provoke, rich external stimulation; it is conceived as the basic regulator of the need for stimulation”)
What’s more, artists who scored higher in divergent thinking also scored lower in emotional reactivity. This might not be surprising, considering the ability to do well on a decontextualized, timed test requires a cool head. When all of the temperamental factors were considered at the same time, activity remained the best positive predictor of divergent thinking, and emotional reactivity remained the best negative predictor of divergent thinking.
I think these results highlight a more general point about creativity: the interconnectedness of temperament and creative production. As the researchers speculate:
‘ . . . temperament [is] the foundation for development and expression of one’s creative potential. People scoring high on activity tend to have many diverse experiences that may be used as a substrate for divergent thinking and creative activity.’”
Kaufman concludes that “a tolerance for ambiguity, complexity, engagement, openness to experience, and self-expression are all essential to creative production in any field of human endeavor.” (Read more here.)
Let’s go back for a moment to the trait that best predicted creativity in the artists: “the generalized tendency to initiate numerous activities that lead to, or provoke, rich external stimulation.” I wonder if this is where the stereotype of the “flaky” artist comes from: they’ve got a hand in a lot of different projects at once, instead of focusing in a linear fashion on one single task.
We often think that this latter approach is the only way to get things done, but it turns out that if you want to be creative—if you want to come up with new and different ideas—it’s a good idea to be a little scattered.