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The Latest Way to Understand Creativity

A new approach to creativity shows the value of a holistic approach.

When you think about creativity, the names of the great masters probably come to mind. From Michelangelo to Maya Angelou, the truly creative seem to have rare talents that distinguish them from ordinary individuals. However, who in your life strikes you as creative? Do you have a grandmother who can come up with an infinite variety of cupcake decorations with a little frosting and fondant? How about an aunt who can transform a living room from boring to beautiful with a few bright accent pillows? Perhaps your best friend is pretty adept with makeup and enjoys the act of decorating her face.

Theories of creativity tend to distinguish eminent creativity (creativity with a capital “C”) from everyday (‘mini” creativity with a lowercase “c”). The creativity of everyday life doesn’t receive the glory of the famous, but it can accomplish similar goals for the creator by allowing for self-expression. Mini creativity can take many forms and may even involve nothing more than making a few tweaks to a set of instructions. Even though it’s appreciated only by your circle of friends and famiiy, you feel good about having made this small impact on others.

According to Marc Runco of the American Institute of Behavioral Research and Technology (California) and Ronald Beghetto of the University of Connecticut, the definition of creativity is still “hotly debated,” even though the topic has garnered scientific attention for over a century. Some features of creativity, the authors note, include originality, effectiveness (having an impact), surprise, authenticity, inconclusiveness (divergent thinking), potential and discovery. You don’t have to be an artist, then, to be creative by standard definitions because you can be an inventor or original thinker in fields such as science and technology.

The other question that comes up when defining creativity is creativity for “whom.” If you feel you’ve created a worthwhile product, is it necessary that other people applaud your efforts? If people eat your grandmother’s cupcakes without comment, does this make them any less creative? Runco and Beghetto believe that this notion of relativity is best understood when you consider the creative works of children. They may be original and imaginative, but do their colorful stick figures have a meaning that others can appreciate beyond proud parents? Creativity research has, according to the authors, made the distinction between the two forms of creativity: the primary (self-expressed) and secondary (recognized by others). However, this dividing line, the authors argue, can become artificial. Focusing on one form at the expense of the other can result in too narrow of a focus on the individual or “focusing so much on the social that the individual is erased” (p. 7).

Bringing both of these perspectives together, the research team maintains, involves incorporating “primary” creativity that is unique to the individual with “secondary,” begins when an audience is “in dialogue with” the creator. The components of primary creativity include, in addition to the individual, the medium or subject matter, and the primary outcomes (the works). In secondary creativity, the outcome reaches an audience which, in turn, produces the secondary outcomes, or the “unique interpretation and experience of primary outcomes by an external social audience” (p. 8). The total model, which the authors label PSC (Primary and Secondary Creativity) assumes that dialogues occur between the individual and the social components of creativity but also that, within the individual, there may be an inner dialogue with the “internalized others” of the audience. You engage with your own medium of creative expression, but as you verify or implement your work, you start to take the effect it will have on others into account. Here, the authors note with caution, if the creator has the audience too much in mind, as in trying to produce a work of commercial value, the work’s originality will suffer.

Perhaps the newest wrinkle of the PSC model is the idea that an audience can be creative in its response (secondary process). You may have felt this effect yourself as you listened to a familiar piece of music but, on one occasion, heard notes and chords that you feel were brand new to you. That new understanding makes you feel that although you’re a listener, you’re also a creator in the sense of having your own unique reaction. You may have a similar reaction to watching a film in which a particular scene causes you to remember some aspect of your own experiences. Both primary and secondary creativity, then, “require the construction of original interpretations” (p. 9). Your dialogue is not with the medium, but with some unique quality of the initial product. Thus, in creativity, the individual component is social, and the social component is individual.

The PSC model doesn’t distinguish between the eminent and everyday forms of creativity, therefore overcoming approaches that define creativity as a count of major pieces of work. For example, studies of creative productivity by age only consider “best works” or ones that are catalogued by experts. The cupcakes, the redecorated living room, and even the makeup all represent one individual’s connection with the medium which can impact the observer. Each of these creative products can go on to stimulate you not only to see the world a little differently but to stimulate your own burst of imagination.

The model also overcomes the limitations of some creativity definitions that require the individual to create, not perform, a work of music or the lines of a script. The medium, in these cases, allows the performer to find his or her own unique interpretation which, as it reaches audience members, gives them the chance to respond creatively. This response can also have an emotional component as you feel what the performer is conveying that in turn stimulates your unique emotional response. Everyone else in the audience may be laughing hysterically at a line in a movie, but something about the way the actor expresses it leads you to have to wipe away a tear.

To sum up, the fulfillment that comes with expressing yourself through your creative products can also apply to the fulfillment that comes with your appreciation of someone else’s work. The idea of the artist working in isolation now can be revised to see creativity as a mutually rewarding connection that affects artist and audience alike.

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Runco, M. A., & Beghetto, R. A. (2019). Primary and secondary creativity. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 27, 7–10. doi: 10.1016/j.cobeha.2018.08.011

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