Personalities of creative people

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What are creative people like? As we saw in my prior post, various creativity researchers tend to converge on the same conclusion: creative people are complex. Creative people have a great deal of physical energy, but often need their rest. They tend to be both introverted and extroverted at the same darn time. And perhaps most strikingly, their high levels of openness to experience and sensitivity expose them to great suffering and pain as well as intense joy and euphoria.

But wait a minute: isn’t that everyone? For instance, tell me if this description applies to you:

You have a need for other people to like and admire you, and yet you tend to be critical of yourself. While you have some personality weaknesses you are generally able to compensate for them. You have considerable unused capacity that you have not turned to your advantage. At times you have serious doubts whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing.

What do you think? Did I peer into your soul and observe the real you? Do I understand you like no one else? Well, maybe (mwhahah), but this example doesn’t prove it. This description was taken right from the Skeptic’s Dictionary definition of the Barnum Effect: “the name given to a type of subjective validation in which a person finds personal meaning in statements that could apply to many people.”

So is over 50 years worth of creativity research on the complexity of the creative aee80c97b0b5ec626b2f9827c0120e91ersonality all one big Barnum Effect? I don’t think the situation is quite so simple (ha!). In fact, the more research I conduct on this topic, the more I become convinced there really are a particular set of personal characteristics that distinguish people in creative professions, as well as people who are making innovative and valuable contributions in their respective fields (whatever the field).

Most crucially to the complexity issue, many of these traits do often contradict each other, giving the appearing of greater complexity. Which is why in recent years, I’ve become particularly interested in looking at creativity across domains– from the arts to the sciences to business. Once we look at how creativity operates in different domains, and the kinds of minds that are attracted to different professions, I think personality differences become more pronounced.

Consider a hot off the press study just published in Creativity Research Journal. Edward Necka and Teresa Hlawacz recruited 60 visual artists and 60 bank officers in Poland, and administered a variety of tests of temperament and divergent thinking (one component of creativity requiring the ability to generate many different possibilities). How did the artists differ from the bank officers?

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.

What’s going on here? Why was temperament related to divergent thinking among the artists but not the bank officers? One possibility is that the bank officers were more intimidated by the demands of the divergent thinking tests than the artists, who might be more comfortable expressing their wacky ideas.

Another possibility is that the bank officers shun creativity. Indeed, as my colleague James C. Kaufman has pointed out repeatedly, creativity is not always such a good thing in every domain! Would you rather have an efficient accountant or a creative 7a0d3607fbc5ee10b2c0a928d12374efaccountant? If you’d like to stay out of jail, I hope you chose efficient! So perhaps the diminished value bank officers place on creativity (at least, the kind of creativity artists embrace) may have influenced their tests scores on both the temperament measures as well as the divergent thinking measures.

Regardless of why artists seem to differ from bank officers, I think these results highlight a more general point about creativity: the interconnectedness of temperament and creative production. As the researchers speculate,

“temperament works as the foundations 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.”

Which takes us back to the complexity issue. I believe creative people are less afraid of displaying seemingly contradictory traits and behaviors if they think it will increase 07cef93b806c843a1b6b2d55c205da1ctheir chances of making an immensely creative connection. Which is why I think tolerance for ambiguity, complexity, engagement, openness to experience, and self-expression are all so essential to creative production in any field of human endeavor. Although whether we necessarily want such creativity in any field– do we really want creative pilots?!– is an altogether different question!

© 2013 Scott Barry Kaufman, All Rights Reserved

For more on different kinds of creative minds, check out my new book “Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined“

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4 responses »

  1. Creative people are like me..

    This is not said lightly; it is an insight that hurts a great deal. In a way, I see the world not as it is, but as it can or should be. And I have for 30 years thought that everybody did this. Discovering that this is not so; have left me floating on a thin ice-sheet far out in an exsistential, deeply depressed sea with no land in sight.

    Anyway. There are massive problems with the words used to describe creative people, and creativity: the connotations, the percieved social and cultural acceptability for “being a little off”.

    “Creative” in the worst sense of the word conjures up images of slightly loopy ladies with flowing, purple togas and buckets of paint in primary colours. Or worse still: the image of my primary school “drawing teachers”. I shudder to think: how my creativity survived the lashings of those ignorant dimwits. It boggles the mind. It was a brutal fight, I can tell you that much.

    To splash a little colour around is not not creative in itself. The way I see it, and much research agrees, is that creativity is essentialy to take two seemingly unconnected things and combine it in new ways. Very very often nothing happens. But sometimes there is a little magic insight … An article in the Time magazine called The hidden secrets of the creative mind points out that creativity is a numbers game. Creative people fail more. Because they try more (Therefore, creative people can easily feel like failures. Massive egos are not the norm).

    I wish to stress that creativity is something equally needed in art, litterature and – and this is extremely important: science. This seems to be left out quite often, unfortunately. In science and arts you will find many of the same abilities. Or, if you like, similar eccentrics. I think Einstein said something like “If at first, the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it”.

    At the risk of overstepping my role as commentator, I will here bring a buch of quotes by various artists, architects, scientists and other nosey, curious creators.

    creativity: 1+1=3

    Any mental occurence simultaneously associated with two habitually incompatible contexts. Arthur Koestler
    That moment of insight becomes the creative act as a joining of two previously incompatible ideas. Lyall Watson
    The association of two, or more, apparently alien elements on a plane alien to both is the most potent ignition of poetry. Comte de Lautrémont
    Perceiving analogies and other relations between aparently incongruous ideas or forming unexpected, striking or ludicrous combinations of them. Rem Koolhaas
    Invention or discovery takes place by combining ideas. Jacques Hadamard
    The unlike is joined together, and from differences results the most beautiful harmony. Heraclitus
    Where the imaginative and the functional fuse and finally become indistinguishable. Milton Glaser
    Creativity seems to be something which links things together… within a new whole, which didnt exist before. Rupert Sheldrake

    The how of creativity is in most respects a complete mystery, but someone worded it thus:
    how such connections spring to mind are guesswork but they seem to favour those who have a promiscuous curiosity and chronic attraction to problems.

    Yeah. Promiscuous curiosity and chronic attraction to problems. That is me.

    • It is brave to stand for ones meaning in a world where a lot is about “being alike”. I remember a interesting professor having a lecture ones, he said something that reminds me of what you write (yes, one association leads to another, previously never connected before, therefore creative). He talked about some of the scientists at NTNU, who had a massive production of research. It wasn`t that all ideas were brilliant, but BY coincidence, and by the share number of them, some of them actually made sense. If you have read “En liten historie om nesten alt” its interesting to see that a lot of our new insights were discovered by accident.

  2. Pingback: Creative coculus | Free psychology

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