Mr. Rogers on Creativity

Carl Rogers creatively projected from clinical practice.

Posted Jan 19, 2016

J. Krueger
Creative use of a sugary dessert
Source: J. Krueger

I maintain that there is a desperate social need for the creative behavior of creative people. ~ Carl Rogers (1954).

In my teaching of the psychology of creativity, I stress two forces that stand between us and a fuller realization of our creative potential. One force is fear and the other is habit. The two share a common deference to social opinion. Creativity demands bold action under uncertainty. There is no guarantee of success. Others may not like what we do when we experiment with divergent behavior. By and large, others prefer us to be predictable because it is convenient to them. To some extent, it is also good for us to be predictable, because we too benefit from mutual trust and efficient interaction. Creative behavior disrupts all that because it involves exploration and experimentation with options of unknown value. There may be profits waiting for us at the end of the road, but we (and our others) can’t be sure. This triggers anxiety and reinforces the retreat into the safe haven of habit.   

I was recently reminded of the play-it-safe heuristic when preparing for a workshop on creativity. The organizers prepared a flyer to announce the event and they included a photo that I had sent them upon request. The photo showed me in profile, enjoying a Chilean sugary treat (a “churro”) while holding it as if it were a cigar. In the editing stage, the organizers asked me to consider “a less informal” photo because the audience might prefer that. The audience was to consist mainly of the parents of young children, and what kind of message would we be sending? Fair enough, I thought, and sent a conventional photo, so conventional in fact, that it was taken by the widow of the Ex-Governor of the State of Rhode Island, a lady who runs a successful photography business in the neighborhood. She took that photo a few years ago when I co-authored a paper published in the American Psychologist, a journal that routinely includes authors’ photos. This indeed is the definition of conventional. The point is that this mini-episode catches the two creativity-limiting forces in the act. The event organizers are worried about (afraid of) the audience and I am worried about (afraid of) the organizer (and perhaps the audience too). We all retreat to the haven of habit and the audience will never know that they missed a cool picture and story – unless I use this story in the workshop, which I probably will.  

This anecdote may serve as a prolegomenon to a brief review of Rogers’s (1954) theory of creativity. The words of Carl Rogers (“I maintain”) ring true today. Our creative potentials are not realized, and that is to our personal and society’s detriment. What to do? Rogers, it may be recalled, was a pioneer in clinical and counseling psychology. He developed the theory and practice of client-centered therapy (and social intercourse in general). This is the lens through which he viewed the problem of stunted creativity.

Rogers’s (1954) begins by asserting – rightly so, I believe – that American culture, in spite of its ideological celebration of individualism, is highly conformist. “In the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the books we read [or our not reading at all], and the ideas we hold, there is a strong tendency toward conformity, toward stereotypy” (p. 249). Creativity is one – perhaps the – way to break out of this group mindset. Rogers suggests that the creative process has three elements: [1] It must produce an observable result, which “must be acceptable to some group at some point in time” (p. 250). This point seems self-evident to Rogers because he does not defend it. Yet, as will become evident in a moment, this point actually conflicts with other axioms of Rogers’s theory. [2] The product has to be novel and “this novelty grows out of the unique qualities of the individual in his interaction with the materials of experience” (p. 250). The element of novelty is standard in definitions of creativity. The unique linkage of the person is inspiring, though difficult to test. [3] “There is no fundamental difference in the creative process” (p. 250) across different fields of activity. There is only one general psychology.

The core of Rogers’s argument concerns the question of why humans would want to be creative in the first place. After Rogers’s initial diagnosis that people need to be creative to keep up in a fast-changing world, he adds that they also want to be creative because creativity is the way to realize their potential. Man wants to “become his potentialities” (p. 251). So why doesn’t he? Rogers submits that “the tendency to express and activate all the capacities of the organism [. . .] may become deeply buried under layer after layer of encrusted psychological defenses” (p. 251), which is his way of saying that fear and habit stand in the way. Rogers is careful to point out that lack of creativity is not necessarily a sign of psychopathology but that it can result from rational caution. Although society needs novelty for its own evolution, most individual proposals for creative change are resisted, at least at first.

What then is the incentive to engage in creative activity? Rogers, now generalizing full throttle from his clinical practice, suggests that all people have the capacity to drop their defenses and be open to their own organismic processes. When they are, ideas flow freely, germinate, and blossom into action. In Rogers’s theory and practice, an attentive, empathic, and non-judgmental person can create the conditions that liberate the creative potential. Being non-judgmental, this person (the therapist, counselor, teacher, or swami) evaluates neither the soon-to-be-creative individuals nor the products they bring forth. It is essential that they do the evaluating themselves. “The most fundamental condition of creativity is that the source of evaluative judgment is internal” (p. 254).

This is where Rogers’s theory scrapes along the iceberg. Social evaluation is ubiquitous and always potentially threatening – as Rogers notes early on. Yet, social evaluation is also necessary if a creative proposal is to become a reality. As in his other writings, Rogers navigates within the safe world of his consultation room, where the creation of an accepting atmosphere is entirely up to him. Arguably, this is an excellent setting in which individuals can gain the self-confidence to fully express themselves. What is missing is a view of how they can then transition back into the real world, which can be quite punishing indeed, and remain creative.

I have struggled to convey this dilemma to my students. We read and discuss in the safe haven of the seminar room. When I ask them to go out and perform actions that trigger their fears and violate their habits, they are at their most creative when finding ways not to do these exercises. I log this as a partial victory.

Note. This dilemma is also a dialectic. To be creative, we need social evaluation and we need to overcome it.

Rogers, C. (1954). Toward a theory of creativity. A Review of General Semantics, 11, 249-260.