The Flakiness Of Artists Is The Key To Their Creativity

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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).

How did the artists differ from the bank officers? Kaufman explains:

“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.

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3 Responses to “The Flakiness Of Artists Is The Key To Their Creativity”

  1. Kaufman summarizes research findings that give credibility to what so many of us know is true already. I enjoy ALL of your articles, Annie, and Scott Kaufman’s too! Thank you!

  2. Thank you for this interesting post. I can see how “flakiness” could be part of an artistic temperament, but it does need a counterbalance, or an artist would not get much done. In addition, there’s considerable variation: there are artists who focus on a sole project for years (even while toying with other possibilities in their minds) and others who have a number of projects going on at once.

    In addition, some artists thrive in a structured environment (such as school), precisely because it gives them working material and a chance to develop self-discipline. Others find structured environments confining and limiting; still others have a bit of both tendencies.

    Creativity is so varied and complex that it’s difficult to make general statements about those who possess it.

    On a related topic, I write here (http://blog.coreknowledge.org/2013/06/20/curriculum-a-springboard-to-creativity/) about how a strong curriculum can inspire creativity, and I discuss a piece by one of my students.

  3. Rebekah says:

    This definitely resonates with me! Now I feel good about having multiple projects going at once, instead of guilty about it.


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