Why Study Creativity?

from Creativity 101 by James C. Kaufman, PhD

Posted 6/1/09 | Updated 5/6/23

A few years ago, I was being interviewed by a journalist who asked me, "Engineers give us better machines. Doctors find cures. What does studying creativity do? Does it make better art? Is the goal… to destroy the artist — and perhaps art itself — through a process of reductive demystification?" Aside from being an interesting break from the usual questions (such as, "Are all creative people crazy?"), this discussion made me think carefully about why studying creativity is important.

I think that the study of creativity does give us better art, and far from destroying the artist, I think it can improve an artist's life — or a scientist's life, or a businessperson's life. Creativity affects a lot of different people. Studying creativity and learning more about it also helps make the case that creativity is important. This statement — "creativity is important" — is not, however, a given assumption.

On one hand, it is hard to imagine a teacher or a boss saying that they didn't want a creative student or employee. People who value creativity may point to its role in inventions, in culture, in progress — in short, to most things that define our civilization. Yet, if creativity is so essential, why is it so absent from most educational or business assessments?

If we want our students to be creative, why is creativity nowhere to be found on the SATs or GREs? With a few notable exceptions that I will discuss later, why do so few college admissions committees consider applicant creativity? If we want our employees to be creative, then why not toss in a measure of creativity in the personnel screening process to go with the ability, personality, interest, and integrity measures?

The answers to these questions are complicated. Many people have a gut reaction about studying and measuring creativity; one of my favorites is from Sherry Lansing, a one-time CEO of Paramount Pictures and a University of California Regent. "You can evaluate grammar, punctuation, and spelling, but not creativity," she told the Chronicle of Higher Education (E. Hoover, 2002). "How would Ulysses be graded on the SAT? How would Faulkner have been graded?"

The thought of grading Faulkner (or Mozart or Picasso) sounds absurd. The idea of "grading" Einstein or Bill Gates is a little absurd, too, yet we still have an awful lot of science and math questions on the SATs, GREs, AP tests, and so on that could theoretically provide a reasonable grade for them.

Indeed, most of the things that scientists try to measure don't merit this type of reaction. Why? Some of the reasons lie in the nature of creativity itself. Many of the most common discussions of creativity are spiritual, psychoanalytic, or business-oriented. These approaches may yield useful information, but they're not particularly science friendly.

©2009 James C. Kaufman. All rights reserved.

Creativity 101

This series is based on "Defining Creativity" from Creativity 101 by James C. Kaufman, PhD. Excerpts reprinted with permission of Springer Publishing Company www.springerpub.com.

James C. Kaufman is a Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Connecticut. ...