Psychology 101: The 101 Ideas, Concepts and Theories that Have Shaped Our World - Adrian Furnham 2021


True creativity often starts where language ends. (A. Koesler, The Act of Creation, 1964)

Society is creative when it is ruled by creative spirits. (C. Collins, The Vision of Proof, 1970)

Man unites himself with the world in the process of creation. (E. Fromm, The Art of Loving, 1957)

Creativity has been, and no doubt will continue to be, variously defined. At the heart of most definitions is the concept of creativity leading to, or being manifest in, the production of ideas and/or products which are both novel and useful. That is, an idea might be new, but not at all useful, or practical. The essence of the idea is that real, genuine creativity is marked by new thinking that has real applications.

Yet, creativity remains an academic backwater mainly because of how to decide whether a person, invention, work of art or science is truly creative. The question is who makes the judgement and the extent to which they have to agree before one can say ’it’ is a real manifestation of creativity. Criteria could be based on patent awards, judgements made by professionals, social recognition or even sales. Different groups have different criteria and different levels of reliability. For the scientist, the whole enterprise hardly gets off the starting blocks. If one cannot adequately, robustly and reliably describe the criteria or label the product it remains particularly difficult to understand the process.

Most people seem happy with the concept of a creative person. Many of the creative people one can mention like Van Gogh or Mozart died young, ignored, penniless and mentally ill. Later generations thought them creative but they were not recognized as such in their lifetimes.

But if, for the sake of argument, one believes at very minimum there must be something inside people to make them creative the question, at least for the psychologists, is this: is creativity an ability, stable personality trait or a (mood) state and or a thinking style?

If creativity is an ability, we would expect it, like intelligence, to be normally distributed. Some people are naturally talented and an equally small number are talentless. If creativity is a (cognitive) ability it can certainly be improved, but the ability level (from very bad to very good) dictates the range of improvement.

Is creativity more a personality trait, like extraversion or neuroticism? Is it a temperamental thing, possibly related to pathology? Certainly there do seem to be high incidences of similar behaviours and backgrounds in successful writers, artists etc. But personality is like ability: normally distributed and difficult to change partly because it is ’hard-wired’ and biologically based.

Is creativity like a mood state? Can it be induced by music, watching a film, even detecting a powerfully evocative smell? True trait creatives work better when in various specific emotional states but all the drug does is get you in the mood.

So what about creativity as a thinking style? The message you hear at creativity workshops is (a) everyone is creative and (b) we can teach you to find your creativity by using techniques that alter your approach to issues. You can be taught (easily but expensively) to alter your thinking style so your ’natural creativity’ can break through. And so you do a bit of brainstorming, a bit of ’de-Bono-ing’ etc. And get to feel you can become a lateral thinker.


Interestingly when creative people, be they artists, business people or scientists write about their experience they all report four similar phases. The first is preparation which involves deep familiarization with the problem. This is reported as conscious, effortful, systematic, purposeful but often fruitless work and frustration. The second phase is called Incubation when the creative person does no conscious work on the problem. It is left in the background. The third phase is called Illumination: the ’Aha’ experience. Suddenly in the shower or on the beach a part solution comes. It is not complete but points in the right direction. It is often the result of a chance configuration which is then worked on. The final stage is called Verification where the idea is developed and tested.

One issue that does seem important is to decide on whether the determinants of, and the process involved in, creativity are different in different areas like arts, business, commerce or science. Another is whether creativity as an ability or trait is normally distributed in the population as a whole, or highly skewed such that only a very few are highly creative.

It seems that researchers have adopted essentially one of four approaches to the problem:

1 The creative person: differential psychologists have attempted to delineate the particular and peculiar set of abilities, motives and traits that together describe the creative individual.

2 The creative process: this is an attempt to understand the thought (cognitive) processes that go on in the process of creativity. It is not so much an attempt at the who, but the how question.

3 The creative situation: social and business psychologists are particularly interested in cultural, environmental and organizational factors that inhibit or facilitate creativity. The idea is that one can therefore construct situations that induce creativity even in the not particularly creative.

4 The creative product: this approach attempts to study all aspects of creativity by looking at those products that are clearly defined as creative.


Since ancient times, people have held the belief that creativity and madness are intrinsically linked. Reviews have tended to show that when studies are chosen by strict criteria there remains clear evidence of the relationship between creativity and mental disorders of many sorts. One study of over 300,000 people showed that bipolar and schizophrenic people were over-represented in creative professions.


Batey, M., & Furnham, A. (2006). Creativity, intelligence and personality. Genetic, General and Social Psychology, 132, 355—429.

Furnham, A. (2017). Personality Traits, Personality Disorders and Creativity. In G. Feist, R. Reiter-Palmon & Kaufman, J, (Eds). The Cambridge Handbook of Creativity and Personality Research. New York: Cambridge, pp. 275—93.

Jamison, K.R. (1993). Touched with fire: Manic depressive illness and the artistic temperament. New York: Free Press.

Simonton, D.K. (2019). Creativity and psychopathology: the tenuous mad-genius controversy updated. Current Opinion in Behavioural Sciences, 27, 17—21.