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Creativity 101 by James C. Kaufman, PhD
Defining Creativity : Page 2 of 2

Defining Creativity

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Here's another one: Are animals creative? Some would argue that the answer is yes, and in fact, there is even a framework for animal creativity (J. C. Kaufman & A. B. Kaufman, 2004). Let's take the satin bowerbird as an example. The males of the species do a nifty, complicated dance to attract the females. They puff out their feathers, they extend their wings, and they run around and make a funny buzzing sound (all in the name of love). Female satin bowerbirds prefer those males who provide the best show (Borgia, 1985). Sometimes, however, these dances can startle the females, making them less likely to mate (which somehow makes sense; try screaming "Boo!" during an intimate moment and see where that gets you). What recent research has shown is that male satin bowerbirds respond to startling their intended mates by reducing the intensity of their dances in the future (Patricelli, Coleman, & Borgia, 2006). So not only do these guys dance and put on a show, but they know enough to tone it down if they're not getting the right response. Teenage boys should be so lucky.

How about this one: John Cage was a composer who specialized in unorthodox compositions, finding music in a wide variety of sounds. One of his pieces was called 4'33". The piece consisted of 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence or, as Cage called it, "unintentional sound." The pianist would walk out onto stage, open the piano, and simply sit for exactly four minutes and 33 seconds. Cage's idea behind this piece was that there is music all around us and we need to reject our preconceived notions about what music is (Cage, 1961; Hamm, 1980). Was Cage creative? Could silence be a creative piece of music? In 2002, composer Mike Batt's classical rock band, The Planets, released a CD with a song on it called "One Minute Silence," which is exactly what it sounds like. Cage's estate sued for plagiarism. Batt settled out of court for a six-figure amount (, 2002).

Yet, consider this other lawsuit: Stu Silverstein compiled 122 uncollected poems of Dorothy Parker and published them as an edited volume. Penguin Books had earlier negotiated unsuccessfully to publish Silverstein's compilation as part of their collection of complete Dorothy Parker poems. Two years after Silverstein's book appeared, Penguin included the exact same 122 poems (no more, no less) in their collection in an uncollected poems section. Silverstein sued, noting that they included poems that he found embedded in letters and that Penguin used the same titles he gave untitled poems. Astoundingly, Penguin won — a judge ruled that a copyright can be claimed only for a creative contribution, and Silverstein's work as compiler and editor was not specifically creative but rather simply hard work. As a side note, the court had to legally define a poem and ended up with "poetry consists of poems, but not all poems are poetry" (S. Leith, 2007). Wow.

Here's another example: On November 3, 2003, the Patriots were losing 24–23 to the Broncos with 2 minutes and 49 seconds left to play, backed up to their own 1-yard line. Patriots coach Bill Belichick called for a deliberate safety, a play in which his quarterback kneeled down in his own end zone, conceding two points to the other team. This play put the Broncos up 26–23, and was an odd move to someone (like me) who doesn't know much about football. Instead of punting, the Patriots basically gave away two points. Why? What the move did was give the Patriots room to kick off. Instead of punting and getting the ball maybe 40 yards away from their own goal line, they were able to get the ball to the Broncos' 15-yard line (and further away from scoring). The Patriots were able to stop the Broncos and then scored a touchdown due to their new, improved field position (and a gutsy move by the coach), winning the game 30–26. The strategy easily could have backfired, but Belichick knew that he had a good field goal kicker who could likely tie the game up 26–26, even if the touchdown run didn't work ("Brady leads Patriots," 2006). In this strategy, the two points lost because of the safety were not particularly meaningful, and well worth the investment and risk. Is this creative football coaching? Would your opinion be different based on how much you know about football?

There are many, many other examples. In 2003, an odd phenomenon called "Flash Mobs" began, in which a large crowd of people would show up at a predetermined place and do a predetermined action (for example, gathering at a fancy hotel and then staring at a specific area). With hundreds of teenagers (or other people with too much time on their hands) participating in these flash mobs, it made the news as yet another example of odd behavior by the masses. Eventually, it faded into oblivion. Is this creative or simply bizarre? What if I were to tell you that the originator of flash mobs was an eager devotee of social psychology experiments and was testing his own ideas about group behavior with a live participant pool? Would that it make it creative? In fact, that's what happened, and the originator is now a senior editor at Harper's Magazine (Wasik, 2006).

For every question we might tackle, another thousand pop up. What is creativity? Is it possible to find creativity in different pockets and nooks of our culture? Think about Deep Blue, the chess-playing computer that was able to defeat defending chess champion Gary Kasparov in the mid-1990s. Can a computer be creative? Consider the advertising campaign for an Ecuadorian foot powder, Pulvapies, which hyped its product on the eve of election night by advising voters to vote for whomever they wanted but to make sure to vote for Pulvapies for good health — and then managed to get their foot powder elected mayor of a small town (Mikkelson & Mikkelson, 2006). Does that count as creativity, or is it notable only because of the outcome? How about the toys and gadgets made by Archie McPhee, including a corndog-scented air freshener, an action figure of Marie Antoinette with an ejecting head, and Angry Scotsman chewing gum — do you have to find them amusing to consider them creative? Consider the Web site, which features many photographs of people in the process of shaking their head rapidly back and forth (thereby creating the effect of distorted facial features), or, which offers people posing with LP sleeves covering their faces to create a new image. Certainly, jowler and sleeveface photographs are different and unlike other photographs; are they creative?

Think of the Paul Simon song, "Mother and Child Reunion" — does it strike you as more or less creative when you find out that he got the title from a chicken and egg dish at a Chinese restaurant? Maybe you can be a creative artistic consumer, interpreting movies or song lyrics in new ways. On the Web site Andy's Anachronisms (Taylor, 2003), a series of pop songs are interpreted as if they're about time travel. Most of these interpretations are not consistent with the typically assumed content of the song. "Once in a Lifetime," by the Talking Heads, is usually seen as a song about a mid-life crisis; Andy interprets lines such as, "And you may tell yourself — this is not my beautiful wife!" as referring to alternate universes created by time-traveling mistakes. However you think of creativity — whether you think of creativity — it is all likely different from how your neighbor thinks of it. There are many different ways in which someone can be creative, and there are almost as many different ways that people try to measure creativity.

This book is intended to be a brief and lively introduction to the field. It's not possible to summarize or describe all the work being done (or even to come close). In Creativity 101, I'll start by describing the history of how people began to study creativity and discuss different definitions. I'll explore the "Four P's" (person, process, product, and press), then I'll tackle four ongoing debates and research areas — the question of whether creativity is domain-general or domain-specific; how creativity corresponds to different constructs such as personality, motivation, and intelligence; the relationship between creativity and mental illness; and how creativity might (or might not) improve guidance and selection process. Finally, I'll discuss some thoughts for the future. Other creativity researchers might write (or have written) an entirely different book, and I would strongly urge an interested reader to seek out other volumes. I will present some recommendations in an appendix. •

© 2009 James C. Kaufman. Reprinted with permission of Springer Publishing Company James C. Kaufman is an Associate Professor at the California State University at San Bernardino More »