Strange Bedfellows: Creativity & Critical Thinking

What you thought you knew about creativity in critical thinking.

Posted Mar 16, 2018

Creative and critical thinking often get ‘lumped together’ as buzzwords within the realm of educational outcomes and, as a result, people often try to draw links between the two. While they may share some common features, the two processes in fact have just as many differences as similarities. By examining both thoroughly, we can see their strengths as processes, and indeed how one can enhance the other.

When a person thinks, they may have a goal in mind; other times, they might let their imaginations run wild; for example, coming up with stories or jokes. Sometimes, they think with caution to ensure logic every step of the way, especially when they care about the real-world implications of their thinking. Taking these broad possibilities into account, it can be said that people think in order to decide what to do; in order to decide what to believe; or simply for fun. However, if the goal is to decide what to do or what to believe; and if a person genuinely cares about the outcome of a decision-making or problem-solving process, then they need to activate reasonable and logical thinking — critical thinking. 

When we aim to solve problems, it is necessary to ask ourselves whether the solution is logical and feasible. If it isn’t, then it’s reasonable to go back to the drawing board until the solution meets these criteria. However, such assessment may not be possible in some cases; perhaps crucial, relevant knowledge (which may be needed to assess such logic and feasibility) may not be readily available for solving the problem and, thus, a collation of insight and the ability to think outside the box may be an attractive alternative. This ability to ‘think outside the box’ is often referred to as creative thinking (for further context on this description, see Dwyer et al., 2016).

According to Sternberg (2003; 2006), creative thinking refers to the convergence of intellectual abilities, knowledge, styles of thinking, personality and motivation; which may, subsequently, yield a solution or conclusion that is (1) unusual or novel and (2) appropriate or valuable (Halpern, 2014; Runco & Jaeger, 2012; Sternberg, 2010). It is worth noting that though this may sound like a useful skill, in the absence of critical thinking, creative thinking alone is not particularly practical for solving problems or drawing conclusions regarding issues we care about (Sternberg, 2002). Though creative thinking is utilized when relatively novel tasks or situations are encountered (Sternberg, 2005), it is vital that reflective judgment be engaged when the novel tasks or situations require careful consideration (i.e. an individual’s purposeful, self-regulated consideration and understanding of the nature, limits, and certainty of knowing; how this can affect how they defend their judgments and reasoning in context; and acknowledgement that their views might be falsified by additional evidence obtained at a later time; Dwyer, 2017; King & Kitchener, 1994).

However, it is possible for creative thought to be complementary to critical thinking, considering the amount of creativity involved in the synthesis of information necessary to infer a conclusion or solve a problem in a reflective manner. In this scenario, the gathering of credible, relevant and logically sound information, while at the same time acknowledging the limits, certainty and nature of knowledge, is key. That is, we ‘create’ by synthesizing information we have previously analyzed and evaluated, so that a logical and feasible conclusion/solution may be inferred. However, not all creative thinking complements critical thinking in this way. So, it is reasonable to advise that if in doubt, one should not resort to proposing a creative solution before all other avenues involving critical thinking have been considered. This is not to say that creative thinking is a bad thing, but rather, it should be used alongside critical thinking and with caution. Just because a solution is creative does not mean it is feasible.

In recent times, to exemplify this in class, I ask my students how they would resolve the recent conflicts in Syria. Students generally return blank stares, even after a few moments to deliberate. I then put forward that one solution would be to "nuke’" Syria. Of course, the reactions generally range from sarcastic snickering to bewilderment and disgust. I promptly add that I neither advocate this position, nor do I support such violence; but, such action would likely put an end to the crisis. Though this solution has great potential, I add, it’s not feasible – morally, politically or economically. No matter how ‘creative’ a solution may be, in order to work, they must be both logical and feasible; and so, creative thinking-based problem-solving must be used with caution. Again, if we genuinely care about the outcome of our decision-making process, critical thinking is necessary.

Lateral thinking, a "popular" form of creative thinking, has gained notoriety in the past few decades, based on the work of Edward DeBono (1967). In contrast to critical thinking, lateral thinking is more concerned with the migration of thinking from what is known across the spectrum of possibilities rather than reflective inference of reasonable solutions or conclusions (Dwyer, 2017). That is, lateral thinking involves the provocation and generation of ideas, as well as the selection of an idea as a means of breeding and applying new associated ideas (DeBono, 1985). According to De Bono, lateral thinking is engaged because of previously failed attempts at solving problems; and thus, ‘digging the hole deeper’, which is an important facet of critical thinking, may not work. One must change the approach, or direction (i.e. lateral), to thinking. However, applying inference and reflective judgment, inherent in critical thinking, is more likely to yield a logical and feasible solution; and is thus a better approach to making a decision than that of lateral, creative thinking. For example, according to DeBono’s comparison of real-world problem-solving to a game of chess, ‘pieces’ are not given to us, but instead created through lateral thinking. The problem with this perspective is that the credibility, relevance or logical strength of these creations is not accounted for and, if it were really a case of not having the pieces necessary to play, then recognizing their limits and uncertainty in response to such real-world situations (i.e. reflective judgment) would yield better results than relying on creativity alone.

As I conclude, we are left with the question: ‘If creative thinking isn’t really useful or practical for critical thinking, then why are they often confused for one another or even discussed in tandem as some kind of ideal form of higher-order cognition?’ Like so many other issues we encounter in this blog, it depends on how you conceptualize it. Critical thinking and creative thinking are very different entities if you treat the latter as something similar to lateral thinking or ‘thinking outside the box’. However, if we conceptualize creative thinking as synthesizing information for the purpose of inferring a logical and feasible conclusion or solution, then it becomes complementary to critical thinking. Steve Jobs once explained creativity as just ‘connecting things... When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while.’ However, it remains that this creative process may just be heightened inference ability (i.e. through the synthesis of credible, relevant and logically sound information – connecting things). Thus, creativity (i.e. inference in this context) is already a component of critical thinking. So then, what’s all the fuss? First, it would be a disservice to the concept of critical thinking to not explain its difference to other ‘popular’ forms of thought, such as creative thinking and lateral thinking. Again, this is not to say that creative thinking is a bad thing – it can be used to complement critical thinking; but it depends on how you conceptualise it. Second, even if we treat it like ‘heightened inference ability’, we are not resorting to creativity alone - all other avenues involving critical thinking must be considered. That is, we can think creatively by synthesizing information we have previously thought about critically (i.e. through analysis and evaluation) for the purpose of inferring a logical and feasible conclusion or solution. Thus, given this caveat, we can infuse our critical thinking with creative thinking, but we must do so with caution. 


De Bono, E. (1967). The use of lateral thinking. London: Jonathan Cape.

De Bono, E. (1985). Six thinking hats. Boston: Little Brown.

Dwyer, C.P. (2017). Critical thinking: Conceptual perspectives and practical guidelines. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Dwyer, C.P., Hogan, M.J., Harney, O.M. & Kavanagh, C. (2016). Facilitating a student-educator conceptual model of dispositions towards critical thinking through interactive management. Educational Technology & Research, 65, 1, 47-73.

Halpern, D.F. (2014). Thought & knowledge: An introduction to critical thinking (5th Ed.). UK: Psychology Press.

King, P. M., & Kitchener, K. S. (1994). Developing reflective judgment: Understanding and promoting intellectual growth and critical thinking in adolescents and adults. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Runco, M. A., & Jaeger, G. J. (2012). The standard definition of creativity. Creativity Research Journal, 24(1), 92-96.

Sternberg, R. J. (2002). Raising the achievement of all students: Teaching for successful intelligence. Educational Psychology Review, 14, 4, 383-393.

Sternberg, R. J. (2003). The development of creativity as a decision-making process. Creativity and development, 91-138.

Sternberg, R. J. (2005). The theory of successful intelligence. Revista Interamericana de Psicología/Interamerican Journal of Psychology, 39, 2, 189-202.

Sternberg, R. J. (2006). The nature of creativity. Creativity Research Journal, 18, 1, 87-98.

Sternberg, R. J. (2010). The dark side of creativity and how to combat it. In D.H. Cropley et al. (eds.), The Dark Side of Creativity. UK: Cambridge University, 316-328.