« Creative » is a word with many uses. Sometimes it is used to describe the potential of a person to produce creative works whether they have produced any work as yet or not. Sometimes it is used to describe every-day behaviors as, for example, when a nursery school curriculum is said to encourage creative activities such as drawing or story telling. In this essay, I will restrict
the meaning of the term in two ways: First, I will be concerned solely with creative productivity, that is, with creativity expressed in the actual production of creative works and not with the unexpressed potential for producing such works. Second, I will be concerned only with creative
acts at the highest level, that is, with the best and most valued works of our artists, scientists, and scholars.
Society defines creative acts through a complex process of social judgment. It relies most heavily on the opinions of relevant experts in making such judgments-music critics, art historians, scholars, and scientists who are presumed to know the field But even expert judgments are highly subjective and are frequently influenced by irrelevant factors. For example,
they are influenced by the expert’s current focus of attention (Gregor Mendel had to wait decades before the appropriate experts recognized that his work was important), and by the reputation of the creator (it is hard for an unknown writer to get a publisher’s attention).
Despite the vagaries of such judgments, there appears to be a core of three evaluations which underlie the identification of a creative act. These are: 1) the act must be seen as original or novel, 2) the act must be seen as valuable or interesting, and 3) the act must reflect well on the mind of the creator. All three of these criteria appear to be essential if an act is to be considered
creative. No matter how well executed a work may be, it will not be considered creative unless it incorporates substantial new ideas not easily derived from earlier work. Thus, even the best copies of paintings are not judged creative, not, at least, if the source is known. And no matter how original an act is, it will not be considered creative unless it is also judged to be valuable. A
composer may arrange notes in a novel and unexpected way, but the work will not be considered creative unless it is also judged to have musical value. Finally, an act will not be judged creative unless it reflects the intelligence of the creator. If a work is produced entirely accidentally, then it is not judged creative. This does not mean that chance can’t play a role in genuinely creative acts.
Austin (1978) makes an interesting distinction among four kinds of chance events. Chance I is just blind luck. It could happen to anyone and doesn’t depend on any special ability of the person it happens to. In chance II, luck depends on the person’s curiosity or persistence in exploration.
The fact that a curious person attends more, say, to the habits of beetles makes that person more likely to discover something interesting about beetles than a person who regards them simply as
something to be squashed. In chance III, luck depends on the person having extensive knowledge of the field not shared by most people. Thus, the Curies’ discovery of radium depended on their recognizing that a certain mineral was more radioactive than it ought to be on the basis of the known elements it contained. Clearly only a very knowledgeable person could make such a
discovery. This is the sort of chance that Pasteur was talking about when he said, « … chance favors only the prepared mind. » Finally, in chance IV, luck depends on the person’s particular, and perhaps unique, intellectual style or pattern of interests. Acts which involve chance events of the last three kinds do reflect credit on the mind of the actor and thus are potentially creative.
In the remainder of this chapter, I will discuss data bearing on two major questions:
« What are the characteristics of creative people? » and « What cognitive processes are involved in creative acts? » Finally, I will present a theoretical framework to account for these data.