Who Are the Most Effective Creativity Role Models?

A new study shows that we might be wrong about the best creativity role models.

Posted Oct 28, 2020

Matt Ridley/Unsplash
Creativity exists in everyday life.
Source: Matt Ridley/Unsplash

A new study published in the Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts shows how different kinds of mindsets about creativity can be developed. Research in developmental and social psychology, pioneered by Carol Dweck at Stanford University, demonstrated that mindsets—beliefs whether abilities are innate and unchangeable or malleable through growth and development—are powerful motivators. Mindsets influence how likely one is to engage in a challenging activity and persist in the face of obstacles. The latest study by Maciej Karwowski and colleagues shows that mindsets about creativity depend on how we talk about creativity.

Researchers set up an experiment in which they described creativity in two distinct ways. One description referred to what scholars call "Big-C creativity"—creativity evident in great discoveries or inventions, creation of products that change how we live, or great works of art, music, and literature. Creators who fit this description are Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, or Claude Monet. In other words, eminent creators whose names we know and celebrate.

Another description referred to what scholars call "little-c creativity," which is creativity recognizable in the original or imaginative ideas and behavior of people around us, either children or adults. Examples of such creativity include children inventing new games, improvisation in the kitchen, amateur photography, and so on. Creators who fit this description are not famous people; rather, this creativity describes my son Alex and his friend Jacob, who invented a long-running role-playing game in which they rebuild society after a zombie apocalypse, or a parent you know on Facebook who figured out an original, contactless way to distribute Halloween candy during a pandemic.

After reading different descriptions of creativity, participants in the study were asked about their mindsets about creativity. A growth mindset about creativity meant agreeing that “Anyone can develop his or her creative abilities up to a certain level,” or “It doesn’t matter what creativity level one reveals—you can always increase it,” for instance, and the fixed mindset meant agreeing that “You are either creative, or you are not—even when trying very hard you cannot change much,” or “Some people are creative, others aren’t—and no practice can change it.”  

The results showed that when people are presented with descriptions of creativity as something that changes culture and of creators who become household names, they are more likely to agree with the fixed creativity mindset and see creativity as immutable. Creative geniuses who readily come to mind seem different from the rest of us and their accomplishments unreachable. It must be that they were born with extraordinary ability that we—the rest of us—cannot develop.

On the other hand, when people are presented with descriptions of creativity in terms of original and effective everyday behavior, they are more likely to agree with the growth mindset and see creativity as a skill that can be built with experimentation and tinkering, effort, and practice. Creativity appears more attainable.

Why do these mindsets about creativity matter? Growth mindsets about creativity predict greater creative confidence, which in turn helps creative problem-solving. Those who believe creativity can be developed and improved tend to think that they can propose original ideas and efficiently solve even complex problems. When researchers asked college students to think of ways they could increase their job opportunities after graduation while balancing school and work, those who believed creativity could be developed and were more confident were more likely to devise more original and high-quality solutions.   

The question becomes what messages about creativity we send to children and adults alike. Educators tell stories of eminent creators to inspire children, and professional conferences advertise eminent keynote speakers. Origin stories of major consumer products are shrouded in myths that make their creators seem to have come up with their ideas and developments out of thin air, apparently on the sheer force of their talent.

Pino Audia and Christopher Rider found that business students they studied believed that close to half of companies got started in garages. A study of actual startups shows that at best, a quarter of companies originated in garages (or dorm rooms or basements or homes more generally). The norm is for companies to grow and develop from a founder’s experiences and networks. The garage myth discounts prior experience and development of creative abilities. The most famous garage founding, that of Apple, can be better described as having had roots in related companies: Steve Jobs worked at Atari and Steve Wozniak at HP.   

So who are the most effective creativity role models? Examples of prominent creators and origin stories that support—implicitly or explicitly—notions of naturally born genius are not likely to be effective. If we happen to be at a conference where a keynote speaker is a founder of a billion-dollar company that changed how we shop or connect with friends and family, we might feel their presentation or their story to be inspiring. But this is an inspiration that is most likely only emotional and does not create confidence in our own creativity or resolve to attempt a creative endeavor.

Most effective creativity role models are likely to be those in whose shoes we can imagine ourselves. A classmate, spouse, or colleague. Not being in the running for a Nobel Prize does not mean we are not able to be creative. The best creativity role models are those everyday and professional creators who make us see new perspectives and act in new ways.  

References

Karwowski, M., Czerwonka, M., Lebuda, I., Jankowska, D. M., & Gajda, A. (2020). Does thinking about Einstein make people entity theorists? Examining the malleability of creative mindsets. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 14(3), 361–366. https://doi.org/10.1037/aca0000226

Karwowski, M. (2014). Creative mindsets: Measurement, correlates, consequences. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, Vol 8(1), Feb 2014, 62-70

Royston, R., & Reiter‐Palmon, R. (2019). Creative self‐efficacy as mediator between creative mindsets and creative problem‐solving. The Journal of Creative Behavior, 53(4), 472–481. https://doi.org/10.1002/jocb.226Pino, A. G., & Rider, C. I. (2005).A Garage and an idea: What more does an entrepreneur need? California Review of Management. 48(1), 6-28.