Chapter 11: Problem Solving and Creativity

Perhaps the main skill that is attributed to cognition is problem-solving: we apply a process of thought to achieving a desired outcome or avoiding an undesirable outcome by a process of thought that guides us to take specific actions to effect a positive outcome. Whether it's regarded as simple problem solving or creative problem solving often depends on whether we see the solution as obvious in arrears.

Problem-solving can be simple or complex, and it can be undertaken by an individual or a group - and it's arguable whether working as a group facilitates or obfuscates our problem-solving ability.

Whatever the case, problem-solving is regarded as a distinctive quality of human beings. While some problem-solving behavior has been witnessed in certain animal subjects (namely primates) it is very rudimentary, and problem-solving remains a defining characteristic of the human mind.

The Problem-Solving Cycle

The author outlines a seven-step process for problem solving, which is regarded as a "cycle" because it tends to be recursive.

(EN: There are numerous models of problem-solving which include more or fewer steps than the author presents here. It would be extremely laborious to attempt to consolidate them into a working model here, so my intent is to document this author's model as described, ignoring all others for the time being.)

  1. Problem Identification - We may interpret sensory data from the environment to determine that a problem exists (recognizing that a vehicle is speeding toward the spot in which I am standing) or it may arise from our own imagination (a sense that I would be happier if I had some item that I presently do not). Essentially, we recognize a negative emotional state (or a potential state that is more positive) and recognize that there is something we can do to effect a positive change. (To simply recognize an emotional state does not constitute a problem.)
  2. Problem Definition - Once we recognize the problem and acknowledge our ability and willingness to take action, we then must further analyze the problem itself. In practical terms, this is a critical step because many solutions fail because the problem was not well understood - that is, we took action without considering what we wanted to achieve.
  3. Choosing a Problem-Solving Strategy - Before gathering data about the problem and the intended solution, we must choose a methodology for problem solving. Generally, this would involve either the analysis of the situation as we perceive it, or a synthesis that considers contributing the possible outcome if something outside the situation were added. This also involves either "divergent thinking" in which we consider a number of possible courses of action or "convergent thinking" in which we merely explore one alternative
  4. Researching and Organizing Information - In this stage, we gather information about the problem and solution, determining which elements of the situation are germane to the problem and which are incidental, as well as any elements we may wish to add to it. Sometimes, problem-solving fails because people did not have sufficient information (whether they were aware of it at the time or not). This also occurs throughout the problem solving cycle, in that we are constantly observing information and consolidating it into our appraisal.
  5. Allocating Resources - It is generally accepted that we have limited resources to apply, particularly in terms of time, money, equipment, space, and personnel. Our desired solution may require more than we have available - and acquiring the necessary resources spins off one or more additional problems - but ultimately re arrive at a spot where we have all the resources we are able to get to apply, and must make the best of what we have.
  6. Monitoring - Monitoring takes place as we begin to apply the solution to the problem, ever vigilant to whether what we are doing is having (or is expected to have) the desired effect. If we are uncertain enough of the outcome, we may abandon the course of action and attempt something else, or give up entirely.
  7. Evaluating - After we have taken an action, we assess whether the action was successful in solving the problem. If it was not successful than we must continue working on the problem, often considering a different solution. If it was successful, then we evaluate the success, if only momentarily, to assess whether it would be best to use the same solution to the same problem in future, or perhaps try a different tactic should the problem recur.

(EN: Back to the other problem-solving models: they tend to detail some things the author's does not. Problem recognition is often a precursor to identification - we realize something is wrong in a vague way before we investigate what it is. Thee author's approach does not seem to accommodate brainstorming or considering other alternatives. The author is focused on addressing the situation of a problem rather than seeking to achieve a specific goal.)

Types of Problems

Problems can be categorized according to whether there is a clear path to a solution. Well-structured problems have a clarity: we know what we want to achieve and have a high level of confidence in the actions we must take to solve it. Ill-structured problems lack a clear solution (we know we don't like where we are but don't know where we want to go) or a clear course of action to follow (we know where we want to be but not how to get there).

In the "real world of problem solving" these two categories are approached in much the same way, and merely represent the extremes of a continuum of the certainty of the problem-solver. A well-structured problem becomes ill-structured when things do not go as planned, and an ill-structured one becomes well-structured when a solution comes to mind.

Well-Structured Problems

Consider examinations in an academic setting: these are generally well-structured problems in that there is a question to be answered and the format of the answer (short answer, multiple choice, etc.) is clear, and the student has a good idea of what he must do to successfully solve the problem. In some instances, there may be a "bad" question that is ambiguous, but for the most part it is clear.

There is also the notion of "illegal tactics" - a student who uses a calculator on a math test has done something he is not allowed to do, and therefore fails the test even if he provides the correct answer. In any artificial test, the illegal moves are defined by the test parameters, which proscribe certain actions or limit the actions you are allowed to take. In any practical situation, ethics and the law proscribe or require certain actions. And of course there are the laws of nature and the limitation of resources that prevent certain actions from being taken.

(EN: One of the greatest hindrances to problem-solving in the field are making restrictive assumptions about the rules, failure to take or even consider a given action because it is assumed it is not permitted. Most commonly, people attempt a solution with the resources that are in their line of vision and do not consider getting additional resources. There are also perceptual blocks, such as considering a chair to be "for sitting" and failing to consider that it may be stood upon to reach something.)

The author speaks to the use of computer simulations in problem-solving, the weakness of which is turning an unstructured problem into a structured one: a computer simulation is written by a person, who applies their knowledge to the parameters involved. As such a simulation to test a design of a bridge may consider only the weight of the vehicles presumed to be using it, but ignore factors such as the shear force of the wind or the pressure of the river's current against the piers that hold the bridge aloft. Even if painstaking care is taken to account for all known factors, it's inevitable that some factor is overlooked, and those that are represented may not be represented correctly.

The "problem space" includes the universe of all possible actions that might be applied to the solution of a problem. In practice, the problem space is limited to the breadth of human insight - when the solution is unclear we brainstorm every possible course of action and evaluate which of them will be most effective or efficient in solving the problem.

In practice, we are often limited by our cognitive capacity - there may be a hundred or a thousand different options to explore, but we are only able to consider a smaller set (up to a dozen) at any given time, and may end up failing to consider a promising solution because our mental capacity is overloaded.

(EN: In practice, most people latch onto the first thing that comes to mind, exploring the problem space only if it doesn't work out, and then think only so far as the next likely candidate. It's actually quite rare to fully explore the problem space, even in formal decision-making that uses procedures designed to do so.)

Assumptions are tested by algorithms to determine the likelihood of success. Sometimes this can be done mathematically, but other algorithms are raw logic. An algorithm is characterized by the consideration of success criteria and the matching of a proposed tactic against them.

Heuristics are another method of assessing a tactic: a standard set of questions is applied to each alternative. What will happen? What resources will it require? What are the possible unintended side-effects?

Studies (Newell and Simon) observe that when a person is confronted by a problem for which he has no immediate answer, the effective problem-solvers use the heuristic approach, that considers effectiveness (will the problem be solved) and efficiency (how much effort is required) of a given course of action.

Problem solving also tends to be narrative in nature: we can work forward from the present situation to the desired outcome or work backward from the desired outcome to the present situation in order to discover what must be done to solve the problem. In effect, we are telling a story of a sequence of events, imagining the effect of each action.

An example is given: how do we find a given book in a library? One option is to check every book in a systematic method, checking every shelf in every row in every room to find it. Another option is to assume that the books are accurately shelved by category and alphabetized by author, to limit that search. Another option is to simply ask the librarian.

(EN: As an aside, this is perfectly analogous to finding information on the Internet. A user visits a site he expects to contain the information, regards the navigation options to find the correct section of the site, then the correct page within that section. A search engine substitutes for a librarian for those who are unable to achieve success on their own.)

Sometimes, problems are isomorphic - which is to say that their formal structure is essentially the same, but the incidental details differ. Consider the logic puzzle of the cannibals and missionaries - in which three of each arrive at the bank of a river and there is a two-man canoe, but if the cannibals outnumber the missionaries on either side of the bank, the cannibals will attack the missionaries. The problem and its solution are essentially the same if you change the names of the groups to hobbits and goblins, soldiers and prisoners, or whatnot.

It is not always quite so obvious that two problems are isomorphic: we may wrongly assume that they are or are not if we fail to differentiate the essential characteristics from the inessential ones. Studies have shown that students, from elementary school to graduate school, will answer a word question incorrectly if the way in which the problem is framed differs.

Our assumptions about the rules may cause us to pursue an overly complex solution - consider the "Tower of Hanoi" puzzle in which players are presented a board containing three pegs and three disks of varying size, with the instructions to move the disks from the first peg to the last. Players will assume, even without being told, that they can only move one disk at a time and that a disk cannot be placed atop another disk that is smaller.

(EN: I also expect that many instances, players will ignore explicit rules claiming not to have heard them - even though they were plainly told, they did not give attention to "rules" that didn't match their preconception of how the game is supposed to be played.)

Ill-Structured Problems and the Role of Insight

Insight is a method of recognizing some peculiarity in the situation that leads to a clear path to success. In some instances, it has to do with the wording of the question (e.g., a riddle that asks how a woman could marry twenty different men, be neither widowed nor divorced, and not be a bigamist. The answer is that she is a minister: the word "married" is used in a different sense). In other cases, it may require recognizing that some details are extraneous (e.g., the "St. Ives" riddle baffles the listener with details about the number of people, sacks, cats, kittens, etc. into forgetting that all of those things are headed in the opposite direction and only the narrator is going to the town.)

Gestalt psychologists maintain the importance of the whole of a problem rather than considering its separate parts. That is to say that when an individual begins to focus on the specific details of a problem, he assumes every detail to be relevant, and only by considering the bigger picture can he sort out which are relevant and which are not.

Unfortunately, gestalt psychology's other suggestions about insight were imprecise: that insight had to do with unconscious thought, that it represented accelerated mental processing, or involved some sort of short-circuiting of normal mental processes. None of these assertions could be proven.

The rebuttal to the gestalt view, often termed the "nothing special view," maintain that insight is not the result of any extraordinary thought process, but was itself the product of quite mundane mental processes that involve considering the information related to a problem, the situation and the constraints, to arrive at a course of action that is obvious if they are fully considered and assumptions are avoided.

It is further theorized that our approach to problem-solving is likely guided by experience: each person has a methodology for problem solving that has been successful in the past, and which he applies by default to any new problem he encounters, regardless of whether the methodology is appropriate to the kind of problem he presently must address. Insight may derive from this habit, or it may occur when the customary method fails and the subject must take a fresh look at the problem.

Yet another perspective on problem-solving (Davidson et. al.) focuses on three kinds of insights that correspond to three different processes:

  1. Selective Encoding. This insight derives from sorting out relevant from irrelevant details. Recall that encoding is a matter of matching perceived stimuli to memory, and each person has a unique collection of memories to draw upon, which also influences the way in which we filter information and perceive situations.
  2. Selective Comparison. This involves novel perception of how new information relates to old information. The use of analogy and metaphor demonstrate selective comparison by rendering the essence of a problem and comparing it to previous situations. It is this ability that makes it easier for people to learn something closely related to that which they already know, and more difficult for those who have no basis of comparing the present problem to previous ones.
  3. Selective Combination. This involves making connections between information in a novel and productive way. This is often demonstrated in the task of writing, in which information absorbed from various sources is pieced together into a novel expression.

Finally, there is the efficiency model of insight, in which the subject first attempts to solve a problem using familiar solutions drawn from experience, which require a minimum of thought, versus considering a problem to be entirely novel, in effect clearing the mind of previous experience and starting afresh to approach the problem as a unique situation.

Ultimately, little is known about insight: it just seems to happen, and it can be startlingly brilliant or awfully wrong.

Obstacles and Aids to Problem Solving

The author means to detail some of the factors that can act as hindrances to problem solving.

Mental Sets and Fixation

A "mental set" is an individual's preference for an existing model for representing a problem or interpreting its parameters. When a person becomes entrenched in a particular framework, he attempts to apply a strategy for problem solving that is ill-suited to the situation in which he presently finds himself, thereby making the problem much more difficult to solve, or even impossible to solve, until the mental set is abandoned.

In general, a mental set is adopted because it is effective in solving routine problems in the past, and the problem-solver does not recognize that the present situation is not isometric to previous ones.

A similar problem is "functional fixedness" in which a person considers only the customary use of an object and fails to recognize that it can be used for other purposes. For example, in common survival puzzles that ask participants to rank the importance of various items found in the debris of a wreck, the garbage bags are often considered to be one of the least useful items - simply because they are considered to be useful only as a receptacle for garbage. If you escape functional fixation, you will recognize a garbage bag is sheet plastic, which can be used to create a shelter, worn as a poncho, used to distill drinkable water, and so on. They are, in reality, one of the most useful items in the collection.

Stereotyping is a similar problem: it engages the belief that people of a certain group that is defined by arbitrary characteristics are entirely uniform, and are limited to the capabilities that are associated to the group. Similar to functional fixedness, this overlooks their actual qualities and overlooks their true capabilities.

Negative and Positive Transfer

In general, our experience enables us to solve not only routine problems, but unusual ones because certain of our problem-solving skills are transferrable. This usually works out for the better, but can become a hindrance if they are not really applicable to the situation and our mental set prevents us from considering the problem in a different light.

Some basic terminology related to this phenomenon:

Transfer may apply to any part of the problem-solving process: our assessment of the nature of the problem, our ability to identify a positive outcome, our consideration of the resources at our disposal, our consideration of the rules that require or proscribe specific actions, etc.

Transfer is not automatic - that is, people generally do not automatically attempt their preferred method of problem solving without considering whether the problem is isomorphic to the ones they customarily face. However, they do use certain analogies to determine whether a new problem is similar enough to previously encountered ones for their existing knowledge to apply.

In that sense, the transfer of analogies is of particular importance: it is only when we believe a situation to be "like" a problem we faced in the past that we settle into our habitual methods of problem solving. However, people also generally tend to check their analogies first, before considering the unusual aspects of a given problem, and will often seek to force them to fit, even if it means ignoring certain aspects or making assumptions about aspects that are not objectively evident.

In that sense, having a list of ready-made solutions that sorts real-world phenomena into a limited number of categories (e.g., when you encounter a hostile animal, there are three things you can do to avoid being attacked) can be inhibitive to problem solution in that it is assumed that the list of options is comprehensive and no other thought is necessary.

The misuse of analogies also applies to our assumptions about the factors and how they behave. Given a problem that involves radiation, for example, many people believe radiation to behave like smoke, and arrive at an utterly ineffective solution because it does not behave in the same way (a "leaky" metal barrier is far more effective than a thin airtight barrier in containing it). The same is true of electricity and water (people assume electricity to flow through wires the same way water flows through pipes) and other phenomena.

As such, transfer of analogies leads people to make assumptions about situations that do not hold true, either by failing to recognize their characteristics or ascribing characteristics they do not have.

It's also noted that the transfer of analogies is not necessarily unconscious. In many instances, a problem-solver will struggle to find an analogy that will be helpful in solving the problem. This has a positive effect when he analogy is accurate and a negative one when it is not.


The practice of "incubation" refers to putting a problem aside for a while, to avoid actively thinking about it, and is generally regarded as an effective strategy in avoiding negative transfer and superficial evaluation.

Incubation is most common when a subject has attempted to solve a problem and failed. They recognize that the approach they are taking is not likely to be productive and break off from activity to clear their minds and start afresh - or simply to set aside prejudices for or against a potential course of action to gain sufficient confidence to act upon it.

It has been suggested that incubation allows the "subconscious mind" to work upon a problem, as well as merely allowing the conscious mind to effectively reboot itself to rid itself of distractions. Both suppositions seem plausible, but cannot effectively be proven.

A list of some of the possible benefit of incubation is provided:

The benefits of incubation are enhanced by giving the problem solver time to think in an unstructured manner, devoting more time to his consideration of the situation and proposed courses of action. The luxury of time also encourages the problem solver to think of alternative courses of action rather than rushing to act on the first thing that comes to mind.

As an aside, this is the reason that deadlines or emergencies encourage sloppy work: the problem-solver hasn't the time to fully analyze the problem or consider various options for taking action. In effect, he jumps to conclusions to avoid spending too much time considering his strategy before he takes action.

(EN: There is also neurological evidence that even mild stress depresses the level of electrochemical activity in the prefrontal cortex. In that sense it is not a conscious choice to refrain from investing time in thinking, but the partial or complete shutdown of the creative thinking centers of the brain itself.)


Even laymen recognize that knowledge gained from experience greatly enhances the effectiveness and efficiency of problem solving. What interests cognitive psychologies is the reason and mechanisms that make it so: why are experts more adept than novices at problem solving and how does one come to be an expert?

Organization of Knowledge

The value of expertise comes not only from having knowledge of information, but from retaining that knowledge in a structured manner - that is, understanding how information on a topic is organized into parts and how those parts relate to one another.

One study (DeGroot) compared the ability of chess masters to that of novices in the ability to recall the position of chess pieces on a board. Of course, the masters demonstrated a much better ability to recall their locations - but only when the chess pieces were in combinations and locations that would be the plausible result of actual gameplay. In non-plausible combinations and configurations, the masters scored no better than the novices in recalling their positions. This study suggests that the knowledge is understood in the context of the experience in which it was originally gained.

Another study (Whitten) provided students with information on biology in two texts, one of which was systematic in its presentation and the second of which presented paragraphs in random order, such that the text contained information that was accurate but incoherent. Naturally, those who were given the structured text fared better on tests of their recollection of the material than those who were given incoherent ones. In another variation, the test itself was presented to one group in a structured method (questions on similar subjects grouped together) and another group in an incoherent method. Again, those who took the coherent test fared better - but interestingly, students who had previous experience (had taken biology courses) did better even at the incoherent tests than do those with less experience. This suggests that knowledge that is structured can be applied with greater accuracy than knowledge that is unstructured.

Application of Knowledge

Going back to the chess experiment, it is maintained that the reason masters of chess have such a strong ability to recall the location of pieces on the board is not only because they have been exposed to them, but because they have used them in a problem-solving process. That is to say that the way a master plays chess is differentiated from the way a novice plays the game in that the master seeks to have complete awareness of the configuration of pieces on the board to evaluate the benefit of potential moves and the threat of their opponent's potential moves, whereas a novice pays attention to fewer pieces and fewer moves in advance.

In essence, this means that information is retained in greater volume and applied with greater efficiency when it is understood in a context of its practical application. If there is no need to know something, nor the perception that any benefit can be derived from knowing it, it is regarded as unimportant and flagged as such in memory, such that little attention is given and the information is not quickly recalled in the rare instances when it might be applicable.

The author cites a number of studies that examined the performance of experts in an array of knowledge domains, and reached the same conclusion: the expert has more knowledge, it is better organized, and it is associated to practical application than do novices.

Setting Up the Problem

Another difference between novices and experts is observed when they are asked to rephrase a problem, and to speak aloud the steps they are taking in considering a solution: experts tend to spend considerably more time setting up the problem than novices do, consider a greater number of options, and evaluate the options and their consequences more thoroughly. As a result of spending more time thinking, they spend less time acting and their actions are more effective in achieving a solution.

It is reckoned that this is because the expert, having a much greater body of knowledge than a novice, requires more time to compare the situation at hand to his memory of similar situations. Conversely, the novices don't have much to think about, and can improvise a solution on the fly, but the solution will be less efficient and effective.

The author gives the example of a medical intern who, upon recognizing a few symptoms, makes a hasty diagnosis that has a high risk of being wrong, whereas an experienced doctor has encountered situations in which the same symptoms were common to multiple conditions and recognized the need to perform further analysis before pronouncing a conclusion.

Novices are also more likely to regard information as irrelevant and fail to consider it, to use means-end thinking without considering the full array of consequences of an action, to latch upon the first solution that comes to mind without considering alternatives, and to spend more time making decisions and re-thinking decisions as they proceed to take action (having not thought the problem all the way through, but merely seeking to make some vague improvement and then think on it further).

Thus, experts use their knowledge more thoroughly and more precisely in the course of solving a problem, and thus are more effective at defining solutions.

Automatic Expert Processes

In addition to having access to a store of knowledge, experts also have procedural knowledge that enables them to access a toolbox of problem-solving methodologies that make them more effective in solving problems in their domain, or problems that are isomorphic to the ones they have routinely encountered and solved.

In addition to schematization (having an elaborate framework of knowledge and the ability to assess problems quickly), experts also benefit from automation - the ability to take action with little conscious thought because habitual reactions are generally effective in resolving problems. In effect, experience teaches us to react in situations so that we do not consider them to be "problems" (with all the emotion and drama) at all, merely a familiar set of conditions that require us to do things we already know how to do and are comfortable doing.

Consider the way in which experience/expertise influences reading ability: an individual who is familiar with a word can simply recognize it and move forward, whereas an individual who is not familiar with a word will need to deliberate to figure out how it is pronounced and what it might mean in the context in which it is presented. As a result, the amount of experience a person has at reading is highly influential in his ability to read and understand a passage of text he has never before encountered.

There is, however, some support for the notion that experts become locked into familiar patterns and tend to make mistakes because of their mental set in situations in which a problem is of a different nature to that which they typically encounter due to negative transfer.

Often expertise is related to foresight and prediction skills. An expert player of chess of billiards is better able to execute a move because he knows in advance what his next move (or several) is likely to be, so the action he undertakes is not merely addressing the present step but facilitating the next. The same can be said of less frivolous skills, such as typing: it is not the ability to accurately strike a key, but the ability to position the hands to strike the next key, that results in a dramatic improvement in performance.

Correspondingly, experts take a systematic approach to solving a sequence of problems: they visualize the end result they wish to achieve and recognize all the various component actions they must perform, and make decisions holistically rather than with myopic focus on the present step.

Innate Talent and Acquired Skill

While expertise is based on knowledge and experience, there remain significant differences in individuals of similar levels of experience that are attributed to innate talent. This gives support that some people are simply born with a knack for certain things.

The notion of innate talent is often regarded as a sort of mysticism in the scientific community, largely because there is a lack of adequate and tenable evidence in support that it exists. The studies that have been done generally count upon unusual cases rather than typical ones, and are based on the prima-facie assumption that talent does exist.

It is reckoned that because some debilitating conditions are hereditary, that there also must be some facilitating conditions that are also hereditary. This is a sensible theoretical perspective, albeit lacking any evidence. There is ample evidence that certain conditions lead to a subject being less capable than average at a given task, but little specific evidence of any condition that make them more capable than average.

Ultimately, "talent" is a vaguely understood notion to which any or all variances that cannot readily be explained are casually relegated to be dismissed rather than considered.

(EN: My sense is that the difference may be explainable by the level of attention people give to their experience. The fact that two students who take the same class earn different grades and retain a differing amount of information afterward has more to do with their study habits than any innate ability to understand information, and the same can be said of people who have the same amount of experience. In essence, it is their proclivity to be observant and mindful of experience that contributes to the level at which the experience can be retained for future use.)


The concept of creativity is likewise highly mystical. People who demonstrate an extreme level of creativity (Einstein, Mozart, Newton, Van Gogh, etc.) become legendary and their performance is shrouded in myth. It is plainly evident that some people are more creative than others, and that some are extremely so, but what causes them to be so is little known and, jealous to be able to replicate their performance, people turn to superstition to explain the source of their ability.

To step back from the mystic - creativity is defined as the ability to create something original and worthwhile. "Worthwhile" is an essential component, because any random assemblage may be original, but entirely pointless, and therefore unimpressive.

There is no generally accepted theory of what enables a person to be creative, but there are a number of elements that are often identified as components of creativity:

Quantity of Production

Creative people tend to be prolific, and create a large volume of trash among which there are a few pieces of treasure. Our attention is focused on their success, and we turn a blind eye to a great many failures that are produced along the way.

(EN: In studying literature, this becomes fairly obvious when the body of notes or unfinished works of a "great" writer are examined. Dickinson and Poe, for example, are two writers lauded for creativity whose life's work includes a substantial volume of complete rubbish - and the few remarkable pieces that are anthologized and remembered are not characteristic of their typical output.)

Tests of creativity therefore measure the quantity of response rather than the quality. Consider the Torrance test, which presents subjects with a series of squiggles, dots, and lines, and asks the subject to use the given shapes to create a drawing. Among the criteria by which a person would be considered creative is the number of different options they can conceive, however outlandish. Likewise, the "brainstorming" process of problem solving emphasizes coming up with as many solutions as possible, even though some of them are painfully stupid.

A person doesn't necessarily need to produce output to be creative - they may mentally explore a dozen different options and take action on only the one that seems most promising. An artist may fill a sketchbook with ideas and execute only one painting, and each of those sketches might be the best of many ideas that occurred to him, only one of which made it onto paper.

Quantity of Knowledge

Highly creative output is not associated with novices or outsiders to a domain of knowledge - such people can have unusual and original ideas, but they seldom satisfy the criterion of being worthwhile. Those that make worthwhile contributions are diligent in amassing knowledge, which enables them to understand existing principles and make connections. In that way, it is not an extraordinary mental process that produces creative work, but a rather ordinary process that is executed on a large amount of information.

Not every cognitive psychologist agrees with this perspective, maintaining that insight is what differentiates a creative genius from someone who is merely competent. But even at that, insight must work upon something, and those who understand the existing principles of a given field of study are more adept at being insightful.

There are also works of genius that occur only because an individual has disregarded a canonical principle. This occurs when there is consensus upon a principle that is factually wrong, and accepting that principle prevents a person from seeing beyond its inherent erroneousness. People who do not know what is not considered to be possible can have breakthroughs, but still must have sufficient understanding of their domain to know which common assumptions should be questioned or ignored.

Personality Factors

Other psychologists consider the qualities of a person's character as influential in their ability to think creatively. To be creative, one must ...

The difference between personality and personal philosophy becomes blurred, as the criteria for creativity can be contrary to a person's natural proclivities (an introverted person may need to act in an extraverted manner to pursue a given goal). The difference between personality and philosophy is that the former is related to comfort with the status quo and the latter is related to the willingness to accept discomfort for the sake of achieving a goal.

It's also notable that the personality-based approach to creativity is very dominant in pop-psychology and self-help literature, which encourage readers to "have more self-confidence" as if that were as simple as flipping a switch.

Environmental Influence

There are some suggestions that being "in the right place at the right time" is the cause of creativity. In effect, Newton would not have formulated the Universal Law of Gravitation had he not been sitting under an apple tree to observe the apple fall to the ground. Such notions are the stuff of myth and legend - but it cannot be denied that inspiration often occurs as a result of chance observation.

(EN: It can and has been denied. Even if the apple-tree legend is a complete falsehood, his mind was on the verge of making the connection, and a later observation of any falling object may have closed the gap in his mental circuitry, or it may have occurred to him by a cognitive process that did not involve external stimulus. Even if that argument is accepted, it cannot be denied that a specific event caused the inspiration to occur sooner than it might have had the event not occurred within the subject's perception.)

The notion that creativity has an external component has led to a wide range of activities to create an environment that is supportive of creativity: from bringing together people to interact with one another, placing various props in their workspace, and even painting the walls a certain color. There is little evidence to suggest that any of this has a significant impact on the ability of a person to think creatively. Moreover, there is stronger evidence that an environment in which an individual is able to concentrate, free of distractions, is more conducive to creative productivity.

In the same way, creativity is also considered to follow a path of evolution. An idea is posited that does not seem to work, and is modified in various ways to improve it. Positive changes are retained and negative changes are abandoned - with no firm proof in advance that they will work until tested. In that sense, a "laboratory" type of environment in which experimentation can be done is considered to be highly supportive of creativity.

Confluence of Factors

Biographical of creative individuals and ethnographical studies of creative processes generally identify multiple factors that facilitate creativity - which is to say that each of the factors above contributes to creativity but is not solely sufficient to cause creativity. It's generally observed that highly creative individuals are supported by more of these factors than those who are only moderately creative.

A handful of common qualities are listed:

Creative act themselves tend to follow a "buy low sell high" pattern: a creator generally recognizes a hidden potential in an idea that others do not seem to value, and focuses great amounts of time, energy, and resources developing something that others regard as unimportant. When the breakthrough occurs and is recognized, particularly when others recognize the idea as important and wish to play along, the creator "sells" off his idea and moves onto another problem that needs attention.

It's noted that the study of creativity takes note of various factors and characteristics, and has been successful in identifying those that are common to creative individuals - but has yet to quantify them of demonstrate a linear relationship of the degree to which a characteristic/factor is met and the level of creativity demonstrated. Moreover, it's not clear which of the factors are contributors to creativity and which are incidental. In all, the phenomenon is only vaguely understood.

Type and Degree of Creative Contribution

One group of investigations into creativity (Sternberg. Kaufman, Pretz) have attempted to categorize create contributions, and presents a list of eight types:

  1. Replication - Confirms that "a given field is where it should be"
  2. Redefinition - Redefines where the field currently is, creating a change in the point of view
  3. Forward Movement = Attempts to move the field forward in the direction in which it is already moving
  4. Advance Forward Movement - Also moves the field in the direction it is already going but beyond the point where others are ready for it to go
  5. Redirection - Moves the field from where it is headed into a new and different direction
  6. Redirection from the Past - Backtracks progress to a past point at which the field appears to have taken a wrong turn, redirecting it from that point
  7. Restarting - Moves the field to a different position that serves as a starting point for future advancement
  8. Integrating - Synthesizes two or more branches that seemed to be moving in different directions, such that they can move forward more collaboratively.

(EN: All of this seems very vague to me - "points" and "branches" seem to be analogous to routes along a map and "the field" represents a subject matter, but it's difficult to conceptualize precisely what has meant. I did a broader search for "eight kinds of creative contribution" and found the same sort of language in other sources, but no more clarity.)

These types represent the nature of creative contribution, but the level of creativity tends to focus on the degree: how far is the field moved forward or how different is a new direction from any previous direction. Slight changes are unremarkable, and moderate ones are seen as refinements to existing practice rather than creation. It is only when the degree of advancement or differentiation is considerable that the act is recognized as creative.