Duncker's candle

In the beginning was the box, and the box was with God, and the box was God.

~ The Book of the Box

The chief enemy of creativity is ‘good’ sense.

~Pablo Picasso

Creativity is all the rage. In an era of fast-paced technological and social change, the idea that change better be innovative and progressive seems natural. The concepts of custom, habit, and tradition are stale and musty. Yet, creativity has a mystique. Where do innovative ideas come from? How do they take shape in the mind? The Ancient Greeks imagined the muses as sources of inspiration. Scientists are not satisfied with fanciful myths of origin because myths do not explain anything. Engineers and designers are not satisfied because myths do not tell them what to do in order to become more creative. Psychologists are not surprised by the persistence of such myths, however, because they understand that the ultimate origin of any thought, creative or otherwise, is unknowable. Psychologists also understand that people who try to understand their own creative process by self-inspection will get frustrated. Self-consciousness can by definition not contain that which lies outside of consciousness. Whenever we become aware of a thought, we are condemned to remain unaware of that thought’s mental origin or cause. Were we to become aware of that earlier causal thought, we would necessarily fail to perceive the mental cause of that thought, and so on. The mystery of the origin of thought is built into to the concept of thought itself.

The scholarly literature is full of papers that bemoan the lack of research on creativity and that claim that now is the time for a new beginning. The student of this literature will notice the lack of a cumulative knowledge base and the lack of consensus of what creativity is. The typical definition states that creativity combines novelty with utility. The inclusion of the aspect of utility cuts the literature on creativity in half and tosses one half away. This is the half that is concerned with novelty only. Its core concept is divergent thinking and its typical measure is the multiple-uses test (Guilford, 1950). Think of all the unusual ways in which you might use a brick or a paperclip. You may come up with many ingenious new uses, but perhaps no one cares. Divergent thinking is only concerned with the production of ideas, not with their implementation to someone’s benefit.

The half of the literature that retains a concern with the utility or usefulness of ideas is about problem-solving. This approach begins with a well-articulated need, which can be met by creative thought. Karl Duncker’s (1945) work of functional fixedness (being stuck in the mental box) and how to overcome it (thinking outside the box) is iconic for this approach. To demonstrate problem-solving by sudden insight, Duncker had to present his respondents with a problem, to which he himself knew the answer. The matchbox-candlestick problem is now a classic example of this approach. Since the experimenter or tester already knows the correct creative solution, the Duncker paradigm can be seen as an assessment of convergent rather than divergent thinking, which makes it a less than ideal example of creativity. One hopes that a person’s ability to find Duncker’s creative solutions translates into the ability to find yet unknown solutions to future problems, but this hope is merely that: a leap of faith. It is not possible to construct a reliable test of the ability to find creative solutions to novel problems. Every time a solution is found, the problem is disqualified as a test item (because it is no longer novel).

Although individuals cannot observe how their insights form in their minds, they can use a variety of tactics to tap their creative potential. Even if much of the research on creativity is concerned with individual differences, there is broad consensus that the creative productivity of most people can be enhanced. The idea that creativity is plastic highlights the contrast with intelligence. There is little support for the idea that individuals can be made smarter simply by removing mental inhibitions.

The distinction between limited observed creativity and a vaster potential of latent creativity raises the question of what the barriers to the full realization of one’s creative potential are (Maslow, 1968). Two themes run through the literature. One theme is that custom, convention, and conformity regulate human behavior to such a degree that thinking and behaving remains boxed in, often without people recognizing the constraints to which they are subjected. Custom, convention, and conformity are socially normative in the sense that they homogenize behavior. They make behavior reliable and predictable, and thus, they have a certain socio-economic benefit. If surprises disrupt the social machinery, creativity will be discouraged. A related theme is fear of social sanction, which is a reasonable fear once social norms have become injunctive. Injunctive norms demand certain behaviors while proscribing others. If a potentially creative act is novel and original, it is by definition non-normative. Norms are inert; they lag behind social change. A social norm that welcomes or even demands originality and change is a second-order norm. Such norms are rare and they are more difficult to represent psychologically than first-order norms of the thou-shalt or thou-shalt-not variety.

Being hemmed in by internalized norms, a person of budding creativity must find a way to break free. Creativity requires a liberation from constraint. There are many ways in which this liberation can be accomplished. One might play or dance, or one might take a walk or a shower, or do some gardening. Many activities that involve movement but do not require much attention are suitable. These activities not only dampen self-consciousness and self-criticism, they also break mental sets such as Duncker’s functional fixedness. When thinking breaks free from constraints, it becomes more flexible, more random, more incoherent and bold (Campbell, 1960). One might say that liberated thinking is regressive. It returns the person to earlier mental states, states that prevailed before the person was socialized to become a well-adjusted norm follower, when he was a kid who knew how to play, when she was a psychological savage without respect for (or knowledge of) the conventions of cognition.

If kids, sociopaths, and savages are psychologically unconstrained, why aren’t they the primary authors of social, technological, and artistic innovation? The answer to this question reveals the secret of creativity. Creativity requires mental liberation, which means it requires the presence of barriers that must be overcome. Creativity is the response to constraint. Consider two examples. Johannes Gutenberg revolutionized human communication by inventing the printing press. To do this, he had to overcome the idea that the wine press is only for crushing grapes. Yet, he had to be familiar with the technology of the wine press (and add movable type). Salvador Dalí, like many other famous artists, mastered the traditional techniques of painting before breaking up, reconfiguring, and “exploding” his images. Both Gutenberg and Dalí were expertly familiar with the conventional ways of doing things. Without this expertise, how could they have questioned and overcome the status quo.

Creativity is not the mere openness to the new or unregulated, it is not merely random behavior or playfulness. Creativity is all these things against the backdrop of constraint, where the constraint comes in the form of technical expertise, knowledge of the field, and respect for convention. If constraint is the box, creativity is the step out of it. Without the box, there is nothing to step out of. The person would not even have any idea of what the problem or the challenge is.

Many creative innovations are achieved by young adults. The box paradox explains why this is so. Just suppose (plausibly) that the hold of experience and convention over a person’s mind becomes stronger over time (imagine a power function with an exponent > 0 and < 1) and that the ability or willingness to be playful becomes weaker over time (imagine a power function with a negative exponent). At any given moment in time, the sum of these two variables represents the person’s creative potential. It peaks at or near where the two functions cross, which in practice tends to be early adulthood. Thank goodness, though, we are able to jiggle these curves. The willingness to play might become weaker with advancing years in the aggregated, statistical sense, but the willingness to play and the creativity it affords can be self-reinforcing. Once you discover the joy of it, you keep coming back for more.


John Cleese is a superb role model here. He said he was keen to learn something new every day. He is very old, you see, and he wants to be as well informed as possible when he dies. Click here for a video of his talk and there for the transcript. Note his distinction between the open mode and the closed mode of thinking. Cleese defines the open mode as a mode that is a "relaxed… expansive… less purposeful mode… in which we're probably more contemplative, more inclined to humor (which always accompanies a wider perspective) and, consequently, more playful." The closed mode is the familiar mode we're in when we need to get things done. Cleese wisely reminds us that we need both to make creativity go somewhere. 

Campbell, D. T. (1960). Blind variation and selective retention in creative thought as in other knowledge processes. Psychological Review, 67, 380-400.

Duncker, K. (1945). On problem solving. Psychological Monographs, 58.

Guilford, J. P. (1950). Creativity. American Psychologist, 14, 444-454.

Maslow, A. (1968). Creativity in self-actualizing people. In The Maslow business reader, pp. 21-30.

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