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Creativity—What's Curiosity Got to Do With It?

Exploring the curiosity/creativity connection.

Ronald Keith Monro via Wikimedia Commons
Source: Ronald Keith Monro via Wikimedia Commons

We all have likely seen them at one time or another: the job advertisements calling for curiosity as part of the desired "package of qualities" of the successful applicant. The ways in which curiosity is described might differ. But the message is much the same: What is needed is (choose the one that most resonates with your past encounters) — a passion for learning, a thirst for knowledge, an inquiring mind, a hands-on curiosity — paired with innovative and creative thinking, and an ability to think "outside the box."

The connection between curiosity and creativity seems so clear and obvious, that we scarcely notice that these two different qualities have been linked together. But what is the empirical evidence for their association? How closely connected are they, really? And, if they are associated, what is the direction of their connection: Does curiosity fuel creativity? Or does having a creative cast of mind catalyze curiosity?

Despite our intuitive sense that there should be a strong association between curiosity and creativity, only recently has the nature of the connection between them begun to be systematically probed.

Let's walk through one such study, published in 2017 by a team of three U.S. researchers. We'll start by taking a closer look at the broader research questions that the study was designed to address and the research approach the team used to try to answer those questions.

Two types of curiosity

The study was designed to test the link between curiosity and creative problem-solving but also more particularly focused on how creativity was impacted by two types of curiosity.

One type of curiosity is general curiosity. Sometimes referred to as "diversive" curiosity, this form of curiosity is associated with quite broad interests in seeking out many different kinds and varieties of novel information. It can be seen as emphasizing breadth rather than depth of exploration. General curiosity leads us to enjoy learning about new and unfamiliar topics or abstract concepts.

A second type of curiosity is specific curiosity. It is associated with efforts to learn or acquire particular sorts of information, especially facts that might fill a "gap" in one's knowledge about a particular problem. This form of curiosity is associated with a more focused form of cognitive search. Specific curiosity is what might prompt us to stick with trying to solve a particular perplexing riddle, or to figure out precisely how a complicated piece of machinery works.

The researchers wanted to know if creative problem solving was more strongly impacted by general curiosity or by specific curiosity. The study was also designed to examine the question of when, in the creative process, did the effects of curiosity emerge. When was the influence of these two types of curiosity the strongest: During initial information seeking or problem scoping, or during actual idea generation?

A creative problem-solving challenge

To examine these questions, the researchers asked 122 undergraduates to complete a computerized creative problem-solving task. The task began with the participants receiving an email — allegedly from their supervisor at a company they had recently joined — describing the company and detailing their new role as the head of advertising for the company. Participants learned that they were to develop a marketing strategy to increase sales of the company's product at various company locations, but that they should especially focus on increasing product sales rates among young adults (17 to 29 years old). They were then given as much time as they wanted to review a large set of background materials about the problem.

Next, when the participant indicated they had finished reviewing the background information, they were asked to generate a list of ideas for the marketing plan. After first providing a rough draft of their ideas, they were asked to write a more detailed plan to be formally presented to the company leaders. As they worked on the plan they could again ask to consult any of the background materials.

The total amount of time that participants took to review the background materials provided a measure of their information seeking.

The idea listing task­­ — including the number of ideas and different types of ideas that were generated, as scored by three independent raters — provided a measure of their idea generation.

Finally, the detailed marketing plan of each participant provided a measure of their creative problem-solving prowess. The marketing plans were scored by three doctoral students in industrial or organizational psychology to assess the quality of the proposed plan and the plan's originality.

So, what was the curiosity-creativity connection?

General curiosity led to more information seeking which, in turn, directly led to higher creativity. But general curiosity also took a less direct path. The new information gathered through information seeking sparked deeper idea generation, indirectly boosting creativity. Specific curiosity had only a weak effect on idea generation, though it did eventually also promote creative problem-solving.

Here's a picture of what they found.

Wilma Koutstaal, adapted from Hardy et al. (2017)
Schematic summary of the curiosity–creativity study findings.
Source: Wilma Koutstaal, adapted from Hardy et al. (2017)

Intriguingly, general curiosity –– but again not specific curiosity –– also continued to have an impact on the quality and originality of the creative performance outcomes, even after accounting for personality factors that we know influence creative performance, such as openness to experience. In other words, general curiosity was a significant "incremental" predictor in that it explained differences in creative problem-solving performance over and above that explained by these other factors.

Curiosity in practice

Although these results are for only one study that used a laboratory-based paradigm, the findings highlight some practical lessons for us.

One "take away" message is the importance of taking time to fully scope out or explore a creative problem that we are facing. Information seeking matters. We need to give ourselves the time and space to gain a good understanding of the surrounding context in which our problem is embedded.

A related "take away" message may be that we shouldn't try to be too narrowly prescriptive in where we turn our attention during our initial attempts at generating ideas. Although it may feel as though we will make better progress by carefully confining our attention to the precise nature of the problem at hand, this may prove to be counterproductive. By focusing narrowly, we may then miss out on finding and developing less obvious options that, in the longer-term, lead us to more original, higher quality solutions.

Three questions for your creative process

  • What sorts––or sources­­––of information should you more fully explore before launching into the idea generation phase of your creative endeavors? Are you allowing your curiosity enough curiosity?
  • Are you "boxing in" your curiosity too much, or too soon? Or to use a different metaphor: Are you giving the reins of your curiosity the "creative slack" it needs?
  • Look again at the photograph at the top of this post. Think of the dog's quizzical look, his head-tilted attention toward something outside the photograph. He is not so absorbed in his bath that he isn't also curious about something more. What's the "something more" that you should be attentively exploring?
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