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Creativity in the Arts and Sciences

Contemporary Research

In the early part of the twentieth century, distinguished researchers from many different disciplines investigated artistic and scientific creativity. For example, the topic attracted the attention of the anthropologist Alfred Kroeber and the sociologist Pitirim A. Sorokin. However, as the century progressed, the research was increasingly confined to just three fields: psychiatry, psychoanalysis, and psychology. The psychiatrists were primarily interested in the association between creativity and psychopathology, whereas the psychoanalysts were mostly dedicated to psychobiographical studies of eminent creators. Only the psychologists approached the phenomenon from a tremendous diversity of theoretical and methodological perspectives. Perhaps as a result of this breadth, by the end of the twentieth century psychologists came to dominate the study of creativity. Notwithstanding the diversity of approaches, the bulk of the psychological research falls into the following four categories:

  1. Cognitive psychology—Cognitive psychologists are interested in the mental processes involved in the creative process. For instance, Howard Gruber has studied Charles Darwin's notebooks to detect the cognitive processes that he used in arriving at the theory of evolution, and Kevin Dunbar has studied the mental operations in scientific laboratories by analyzing recordings of research meetings. Using more experimental techniques, Albert Rothenberg has examined special forms of thinking in artistic creativity, while Tom Ward and his colleagues have studied the cognitive processes involved in invention.
  2. Differential psychology—Psychologists from this subdiscipline seek to identify how people vary on various intellectual and personality traits. For example, Robert J. Sternberg has examined the impact of cognitive styles and John Baer has investigated the role of divergent thinking. Gregory Feist has synthesized the accumulated research to indicate how scientific and artistic creators differ on a large number of personality traits.
  3. Developmental psychology—Developmental psychologists are interested in two major phases of creative development. The first phase concerns the acquisition of creative potential. Examples include Mark Runco's work on the growth of creativity in children and Mihaly Csikszentmihályi's studies of talent development in teenagers and young adults. The second phase concerns the manifestation of that creative potential in adulthood. An instance is Ravenna Helson's longitudinal investigation designed to determine why some talented women succeed in realizing their potential and others do not.
  4. Social psychology—Social psychologists are dedicated to understanding how creativity is influenced by social context, including interpersonal relationships, group dynamics, and sociocultural systems. For example, Teresa Amabile has studied how certain social expectations can either enhance or inhibit creativity, while Paul Paulus has investigated group problem-solving behaviors ("group-think"). At a more aggregate level of analysis, Colin Martindale has examined the impact of aesthetic traditions on artistic creativity and Dean Keith Simonton has scrutinized ways in which the social, political, and cultural environment shapes creativity in both the arts and sciences.

Even though more researchers than ever before are studying creativity, inquiries still have a long way to go before the phenomenon is completely understood. In particular, some core controversies have yet to be resolved. The field is also in dire need of a theoretical system that will successfully integrate the diverse empirical findings. Although several explanatory accounts have been proposed—including computational, economic, and Darwinian models—no theory has earned sufficient assent to dominate the field.


Amabile, Teresa M. Creativity in Context. Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1996.

Boden, Margaret. The Creative Mind: Myths and Mechanisms. New York: BasicBooks, 1991.

Boden, Margaret A., ed. Dimensions of Creativity. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1994.

Csikszentmihályi, Mihaly. Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. New York: HarperCollins, 1997.

Gardner, Howard. Creating Minds: An Anatomy of Creativity Seen through the Lives of Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Graham, and Gandhi. New York: BasicBooks, 1993.

Martindale, Colin. The Clockwork Muse: The Predictability of Artistic Styles. New York: BasicBooks, 1990.

Murray, Penelope, ed. Genius: The History of an Idea. Oxford: Blackwell, 1989.

Runco, Mark A., and Robert S. Albert, eds. Theories of Creativity. Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage, 1990.

Runco, Mark A., and Steven R. Pritzker, eds. Encyclopedia of Creativity. 2 vols. San Diego: Academic Press, 1999.

Simonton, Dean Keith. Origins of Genius: Darwinian Perspectives on Creativity. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Smith, Steven M., Thomas B. Ward, and Ronald A. Finke, eds. The Creative Cognition Approach. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1995.

Sternberg, Robert J., ed. Handbook of Creativity. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Dean Keith Simonton

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Cosine to Cyano groupCreativity in the Arts and Sciences - Historical Conceptions, Core Controversies Concerning Creativity, Contemporary Research, Bibliography