What Is the Relationship Between Creativity and Culture?

New studies point to the influence of cultural norms on creative performance.

Posted Jul 25, 2018

Research psychologists have investigated the topic of creativity for many decades and learned much about the creative process. Most of these studies, however, have conceptualized creativity as either an intrapersonal cognitive phenomenon or a process that is influenced by the immediate situation.

Two examples will illustrate:

1. Psychologists have invented tests to assess individual differences in creative thinking. The Alternative Uses Test and Remote Associates Test are two such tests. In this approach to understanding creativity, the ability to think creatively is seen as a cognitive skill that, like intelligence, can be measured. Some individuals are said to possess more creative ability than others do.

 Lawrence White
Sample item from the Remote Associates Test.
Source: Lawrence White

2. Years ago, psychologist David Harrington (1975) successfully demonstrated that a simple "tweak" can boost one's creative output within a particular setting. In his study, volunteers were asked to generate alternative uses for common objects like a brick and a ping pong ball. Half of the participants were explicitly told to "be creative," and they generated more—and more creative—uses for the objects than did participants who were not told to be creative.

In recent years, psychologists in various countries have investigated the relationship between cultural norms and creative processes and performances. In a 2018 article, psychologist Letty Kwan and her colleagues summarized the main findings of some of these studies.

A common definition of creativity is "something both novel and useful." In this context, "novel" means original, unique, or innovative. "Useful" means viable, practical, or aesthetically pleasing.

Earlier studies found that people from East Asian cultures were, on average, less creative than people from Western cultures. More recent studies, however, have found that East Asians are more creative when usefulness is valued more than novelty.

Kwan and her colleagues explain that "there is a tension between novelty and usefulness…novelty prioritizes…ideas that deviate from traditional norms and assumptions [but] usefulness values ideas that provide effective and practical ways to address current needs." (p. 166)

The current thinking among experts goes something like this: People everywhere are about the same when it comes to generating creative ideas, but cultural values like collectivism and tightness tend to discourage individuals from choosing novel ideas for further development. Individualism and cultural looseness, however, are conducive to selecting something that's "outside the box" and seeing what can be done with it.

As a result, Westerners tend to develop a larger number of creative products because their cultural norms support the expression and development of "deviant," non-traditional ideas. East Asians, on the other hand, tend to think holistically and habitually try find a Middle Way that reduces conflict and produces harmony.

In one interesting study, mentioned by Kwan and her colleagues, Singaporeans and Israelis were equally creative when they worked on tasks alone. But when they worked in groups, Singaporean groups produced fewer novel ideas than Israeli groups. Why? Because the Singaporean groups favored useful ideas over novel ideas, just as we would expect from persons who have grown up in a cultural space that emphasizes collectivistic norms and cultural tightness.

In short, cultural values appear to play little or no role in the generation of novel ideas, but they play an important role in the development of creative products. Perhaps it's no surprise then that, in 2017, the five countries with the highest rankings in the Global Innovation Index—the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States—are all Western nations that embrace individualism and are relatively "loose" when it comes to adhering to societal rules.

References

Harrington, D. M. (1975). Effects of explicit instructions to “be creative” on the psychological meaning of divergent thinking test scores. Journal of Personality43(3), 434-454.

Kwan, L., Leung, A., & Liou, S. (2018). Culture, creativity, and innovation. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 49(2), 165-170.