box thinking

I don’t think. I experiment.

~ Roentgen

Along with happiness, creativity is among the most alluring concepts in psychology and everyday life. Creativity smells not only of happiness, but also of productivity, meaning, and legacy. But what is creativity? As clear as the folk concept seems to be, so elusive has been a satisfactory scientific definition. And if we understand creativity, what can we do to have more of it in our own lives and the lives of those about whom we care (e.g., our children and students)?

Curbing our enthusiasm, we must acknowledge that everything has a dark side. Even the notion of happiness itself is darkened by the recognition of its fragility and its potential to interfere with rational thinking. Much like intelligence, creativity can be abused for nefarious purposes. No one likes a duplicitous Machiavellian, but creative they are (Mayer & Mussweiler, 2011). Yet, it would be a mistake to abandon the pursuit of creativity for these reasons. No one has proven the drawbacks of creativity to outweigh the benefits.

Scientists, teachers, and public intellectuals perennially call for initiatives to allow and boost creativity in the young (Robinson, 2001). Bureau- and technocrats push back. They argue that rote learning and standardized testing promise the safety of quantifiable results and greater fairness in comparative evaluation. They feel that subjectivity casts a pall on creativity. How do we recognize creativity when creativity—by definition—goes beyond established criteria and yardsticks? Many scientists suggest that the consensus of experts in a given field is a serviceable proxy for the mysterious essence of creativity (Amabile, 1982).

The social consensus response to the measurement dilemma assumes that “You know it when you see it.” Creative products reveal themselves in their originality and usefulness. It is helpful to know that the social consensus approach is not unique to creativity. Personality assessment also employs the pooled judgments made by a person’s peers and trained observers (Funder, 1995; see Krueger, in press, for a contrarian view). In the context of creativity, the criterion of usefulness is itself useful, but it comes with a limitation. Some of the uses of the most creative designs are not readily apparent, but take time to unfold. The focus on instant usefulness favors the perspective of the engineer, who is interested in solving a problem now with just the right kind of invention (Krueger, 2011). Clearly, however, creativity is more than clever invention.

Humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow (1968) claimed that every person has creative potential. The challenge is to release it. Maslow put creativity at the top of his famous pyramid of needs, as an essential feature of self-actualization (Krueger, 2013a). By placing it at the tip of the pyramid, Maslow suggested that creativity is delicate; that it is difficult to attain and easy to lose. What stands in the way of becoming creative and self-actualized? Maslow pointed to social norms, conventions, and expectations. If people could manage to care a bit less about what others might think, they could liberate themselves and free their creative potential. To Maslow (and many others, such as psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud and sociologist Emile Durkheim), to become creative means to recover a child’s curiosity, playfulness, and lack of concern with being judged. In other words, Maslow (like others) diagnosed the paradoxical role of culture and society. On the one hand, culture helps individuals to grow into a social context, learn what their society values, and master the rules of interpersonal conduct. On the other hand, culture provides constraints, taboos, and sanctions, which have to be overcome if a person wants to graduate from being a participant in a culture to being a creative shaper of that culture. If creativity is thinking outside the box, it is culture that provides the box and thereby the challenge to go beyond it (Krueger, 2013b).

Around Maslow’s time, several other prominent psychologists expressed similar ideas, albeit in more technical language. Guilford (1950) proposed that creativity lies in one’s ability and willingness to think differently, or “divergently” as he put it. The object of divergent thinking is to produce as much variation in one’s ideas as possible. A classic test item is to think of different ways of using a brick (e.g., as a paper weight). If Guilford’s test still holds on to the criterion of usefulness, it does not have to. One might ask how many ways there are to draw a flower. Campbell (1969) made the case for creative variation from the perspective of his experimental epistemology. Following Darwin’s theory of biological evolution and Popper’s theory of scientific evolution, Campbell thought the signature of the creative mind is the abundance of ideas it brings forth (Krueger, 2013c). The creative mind might even generate ideas at random. What matters is that their number is great and that they do not duplicate one another. A more trained and disciplined part of the mind then takes over to separate the good (original and useful) ideas from the bad.

Mednick (1962) proposed an interesting theory of how ideas break into consciousness. Following the British empiricist philosopher John Locke, Mednick viewed the mind as a great storehouse of subconscious ideas, where each one is connected to others. These connections are associations that vary in strength, or, in Mednick’s metaphor, distance. Milk is a strong (close) associate of butter, whereas knife is a weak (remote) associate. According to Mednick, the secret of creativity is the ability to access remote associates efficiently. Once accessed, these remote associates can be recombined or integrated with one another to yield a novel and useful result. Mednick’s theory implies that there is an unintended curse of expertise such that a person who knows a particular field very well has a steep hierarchy of associations. The expert easily generates a great number of closely related ideas, but has trouble reaching beyond the boundaries of her field. Someone with less specialized knowledge and a broader base of interests may forage for ideas in more remote locations, and be more likely to make a fortuitous connection, which may turn out to be the seed of a creative breakthrough. If Maslow identified a paradox of socialization, Mednick identified a paradox of cognition. On the one hand, expertise provides deep knowledge and specialized skills. On the other hand, expertise erects the very mental boundaries that keep the thinker inside the conventional box.

Since Wertheimer’s (1945) groundbreaking work on Gestalt psychology, it has been recognized that the greatest feats of creativity involve an element of destruction. According to Gestalt psychology, visual perception is an intelligent process that brings elements of stimulation into a coherent whole. Perception is most compelling if the constructed pattern coheres well, or if it has, in the language of the time, Prägnanz. The better, or more prägnant, a percept is, the harder it is to break. Here lies the third paradox of creativity. In order to shine, creativity needs to break down something that has proven to be useful and perhaps beautiful. Duncker (1945) called this feature of perception functional fixedness. When people look at a wine press, they see an impressively engineered piece of equipment exquisitely suited for the crushing of grapes. It took a Johannes Gutenberg to realize that the engineering principle of the wine press could be adapted to the printing of letters.

In the pursuit of creativity, salvation does not lie in mere destruction. Just tearing down social norms or rejecting learning and expertise will not do. Conventions and constraints are necessary foundations that provide the context for the creative adventure. Creativity may destroy in order to rebuild and transform. Here is a brief (and incomplete) list of options to stimulate forays into creativity.

[1] Using Apple’s creatively ungrammatical slogan, we can resolve to not only think different but also to act different. With an attitude of controlled eccentricity, we can explore the boundaries of social convention and ascertain whether the world really comes to an end when we breach these conventions (Garfinkel, 1964; Milgram & Sabini, 1978).

[2] Following the Dice Man’s advice (Rhinehart, 1971), we can inject randomness into our behavior and observe the consequences (Krueger, 2010; Miller, 1997). Randomness does not mean chaos. Randomness opens the door to serendipity, playfulness, experimentation, and creativity. Besides, it is an effective antidote to boredom.

[3] Developing an attitude of perceptual innocence, we can train ourselves to take a fresh look at familiar situations and objects. Mind wandering (or literal foot wandering) and other distractions can help in the search for the non-obvious, the remote, and the obscure (Baird et al., 2012).

[4] The Gestalt psychologists Wertheimer (1945) and Duncker (1945) took a notably different view. Instead of stressing the playful, provocative, and poetic side of creativity, these hard thinkers considered the disciplined and systematic search for alternatives to be essential for creative success (see McCaffrey, 2012, for a recent example of this view). This is the fourth and final paradox in the pursuit of creativity. Creativity requires both effort and surrender. And why should that be bad? A healthy body needs both taxing effort and rest. For lack of a better explanation, this is a creative analogy.


The picture (at the top) depicting the concept of thinking outside the box is creative. The artist recombines elements of the thinking anatomy with boxiness without adding anything. The effect is clear and immediate. Now ask yourself how else you might represent the idea—and only then google-image it to see what others have come up with.

Amabile, T. M. (1982). Social psychology of creativity: A consensus assessment technique. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 43, 997-113.

Baird, B. et al. (2012). Inspired by distraction: Mind wandering facilitates creative incubation. Psychological Science, 23, 1117-1122.

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.

Funder, D. C. (1995). On the accuracy of personality judgment: A realistic approach. Psychological Review, 102, 652-670.

Garfinkel, H. (1964). Studies of the routine grounds of everyday activities. Social Problems, 11, 225-250.

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

Krueger, J. I. (2010). Beyond free will and determinism. Psychology Today (blog post).

Krueger, (2011). Creativity under constraint. Psychology Today (blog post).

Krueger, J. I. (2013a). Maslow on creativity. Psychology Today (blog post).

Krueger, J. I. (2013b). Creativity between chaos and constraint. Psychology Today (blog post).

Krueger, J. I. (2013c). Creativity without purpose. Psychology Today (blog post).

Krueger, J. I. (in press). Reverse inference. In S. O. Lilienfeld & I. D. Waldman (eds.), Psychological science under scrutiny: Recent challenges and proposed solutions. New York, NY: Wiley.

McCaffrey, T. (2012). Innovation relies on the obscure: A key to overcoming the classic problem of functional fixedness. Psychological Science, 23, 215-218.

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

Mayer, J., & Mussweiler, T. (2011). Suspicious spirits, flexible minds: When distrust enhances creativity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101, 1262-1277.

Mednick, S. (1962). The associative basis of the creative process. Psychological Review, 69, 220-232.

Milgram, S., & Sabini, J. (1978). On maintaining social norms: A field experiment in the subway. In A. Baum, J. E. Singer, & S. Valins (eds.), Advances in environmental psychology 1, The urban environment  (pp. 31-40). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum & Associates.

Miller, G. F. (1997). Protean primates: The evolution of adaptive unpredictability in competition and courtship. In A. Whiten & R. W. Byrne (Eds.), Machiavellian intelligence II: Extensions and applications (pp. 312-340). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Robinson, K. (2001). Out of our minds: Learning to be creative. Chichester, UK: Wiley.

Rhinehart, L. (1971). The dice man. New York, NY: William Morrow.

Wertheimer, M. (1945). Productive thinking. New York, NY: Harper.

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