The many faces of creativity

In an online exclusive, Emma Radclyffe, a recent graduate of the University of Worcester, considers definitions and speaks to researchers in the field.

I’ve always been told that I’m a creative person. From when I was a child playing make-believe to when I started writing novels, ‘creativity’ has always been a defining trait of mine. It’s only when I started my psychology degree that I began to question what it means to be defined as creative. What doesit mean to be a creative person? Are some people really more creative than others, or do we all experience a different type of creativity? Do people define me as ‘creative’ because of my writing or is it my whole personality? Questions like these drove me to learn more about the process we call ‘creativity’, and what it means to be creative.

One thing that is clear to me: creativity has never been more important. In my eyes, it’s an underrepresented topic in psychology research. As cognitive psychologist Mark Runco (University of Georgia) says, an ever-changing world needs minds that are flexible and adaptable, and with the constant leaps in technology and the globalisation of businesses our world has never had so many changes. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Claremont Graduate University) has emphasised that creative thinkers are necessary to help us adapt to these changes, whether through facilitating self-expression or approaching worldwide problems, such as poverty, from a novel direction. Without creativity, how can we be expected to look at problems from new perspectives and find new solutions?

Despite the many contentious issues in creativity, like how we define and measure it, the one thing that creativity researchers tend to agree on is that creative potential exists in everyone, and that it can be enhanced. But how? I spoke to both Mark Runco and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in search of answers. (As a recent graduate, it was encouraging to find that two of the foremost researchers in an area you are interested in are happy to help with your work.)

Big and Little C

A lot of research has centred around what Csikszentmihalyi, in his 2013 book Creativity: The psychology of discovery and invention, labelled Big C creativity. Big C is the sort of creativity reflected in world-changing achievements, like artistic masterpieces or scientific breakthroughs. The works of Picasso, the breakthroughs of Einstein and the stories of Terry Pratchett could all be seen as examples of that Big C.

In his seminal book, which collected interviews with eminent individuals about creativity, Csikszentmihalyi was clear that Big C is the most important side of creativity due to its world-changing nature. He states that in order to enhance small c creativity, ‘it is necessary first to understand Creativity’ (p.8). ‘Big C might not provide any (…) personal rewards (it often requires drudgery and endless work),’ Csikszentmihalyi tells me, ‘but it does provide recognition or “fame”, often posthumously. From an individual viewpoint, small c is in many ways the better deal; from the point of view of socio-cultural evolution, Big C is more important.’

Mark Runco has a different view. ‘Little c creativity is by far the most important focus for research and education. All creativity starts with (and thus depends on) little c creativity. Little c is the individual's production of a new and useful idea or solution. It is personal. It may at some point be shared, and occasionally an individual's new idea may change the way other's think, in which case it has made the transition to Big C creativity. But most creativity is personal and its importance is not in its influencing the thinking of others but instead has benefits for understanding, self-expression, adaptation, and day-to-day problem solving.’

What does the research say? Most studies tend to adopt a production-focused definition inspired by Csikszentmihalyi’s own conclusion: something is only creative if an audience of peers considers it to be so. The standard definition – that creativity is the production of ideas which are both novel and useful – has developed from this. This bias towards creativity as production means that most definitions used by researchers link creativity with social acceptance.

Yet researchers such as Søren Klausen and Mark Runco have questioned this idea that social acceptance is necessary for creativity: artists such as Van Gogh or poets like Emily Dickinson were never truly being accepted by their peers, but would anyone now dare to say that they were not creative individuals? As Csikszentmihalyi tells me, this social acceptance is often provided ‘posthumously’, but does that mean that often creative individuals will live their entire lives without being accepted as creative?

But this is not the only reason I dislike the production definition. I would argue we’re narrowing our understanding of creativity by going into research with a predefined concept. Not only this, we’re narrowing our understanding by biasing creativity research towards the Big C creativity through the definition alone. Novel and useful ideas resonate most with the work of those world-changing individuals Csikszentmihalyi’s book revolves around. It may be extended to workplace creativity, perhaps, but beyond that I find its uses limited. How does this definition work with, for example, those creative behaviours that we find under little c creativity? A child in a classroom might paint her first ever picture. Is this an example of creativity, or is it not novel or useful enough?

If Big C creativity is changing the world one major achievement at a time, then I would argue that little c creativity is changing the world hundreds of little ways. Runco emphasises that the processes involved in both levels of creativity are the same, and that little c creativity is meaningful in and of itself. I would argue further than that. I would say that it is the presence of little c behaviours that make an individual creative; it is these behaviours that lead to those Big C moments. And not just the behaviours, but the thoughts that we might not write down, the conversations we have that maybe no one records or notes, the ideas that we have that aren’t always put into practice. As a writer, there are plenty of plots that I’ve never put into words. Does that make me any less creative? Ultimately, little c is what makes Big C possible; as Runco says, a ‘transition’ is made from one to the other.

A great example of little c creativity can be found in classrooms: or at least it should be. Creativity is a fundamental part of education, but not the creativity represented by ideas of Big C or the production definition. In fact, in Csikszentmihalyi’s book he explicitly states, ‘Children cannot be creative’ (p.156). In my copy of the book I have underlined this three times and put an exclamation mark at the side; I don’t think anything else that I read during my dissertation work inspired such a strong reaction. In his 2013 speech ‘How to Escape Education’s Death Valley’, the educationalist Ken Robinson described humanity as ‘inherently creative’ and argued for nurturing this creativity in all children. This is an area I am interested in researching further, based on Robinson’s and others ideas of how education systems currently stifle that curiosity. Children play make believe; they constantly explore and expand their imaginations. I wrote my first ‘book’ when I was eight. It was never going to be a bestseller, but could someone really look at that and tell my eight-year-old self that I was not creative?

Creativity in retail

I am fascinated by creativity. For my dissertation, I interviewed people working in retail and technology environments. Technology, perhaps due to that prevalent production definition, is considered a creative career by many researchers; retail is not. I wanted to see what people working in computers and sales actually thought about creativity in their workplace, and what I found was that both sources provided a similar definition, revolving around a single word that had hardly appeared on the radar throughout my reading: passion.

If someone is given the opportunity to be creative in their job they are more likely to be passionate about it, and if someone is passionate about their job they are more likely to be creative. This amazed me. Yes, my study was limited as it was a qualitative piece with few participants, but to find that all my participants developed a similar idea of creativity that I hadn’t come across in the literature at all was fascinating. I offered a tentative definition of organisational creativity: it is having the freedom and curiosity to facilitate job performance that involves imaginative, adaptive responses to events.

Back to definitions

Runco and Csikszentmihalyi both agree on what Big C and little c creativity are. However, where they diverge from each other is not only in the importance of either kind, but in the definition of creativity itself. Csiksentmihalyi told me that ‘What we call small c is probably best thought of as originality, flexibility, or personal voice’ – to him, little c creativity should not actually be defined as creativity. Runco, on the other hand, makes the bold statement that ‘Big C (…) is not really creativity. It is fame, or impact, or social recognition,’ going on to suggest that the ‘best approach may be to reserve “creativity” for the original and effective efforts of an individual, and when referring to social recognition, use terms such as fame, impact or social recognition.’

Others, such as Søren Klausen, argue that creativity is not a concrete or immediately identifiable phenomenon; it’s about both accepting and breaking norms, neither dependent on social acceptance nor completely objective. In all the reading I did for my dissertation, these contradictory definitions of creativity resonated with me the most. Can we ever define something that by its very nature is constantly questioning and changing? It’s easy to say creativity is being flexible in your thoughts, but what does this actually look like?

Creativity has never been more important. That, at least, the research can agree on. But what creativity is, and whether we can ever define something everyone seems to have their own understanding of, remains to be seen.

-       Emma Radclyffe is a graduate of the University of Worcester.  

Key sources

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2013). Creativity: The psychology of discovery and invention. New York: Harper Collins.

Klausen, S. H. (2010). The notion of creativity revisited: A philosophical perspective on creativity research. Creativity Research Journal, 22(4), 347-360. DOI: 10.1090/10400419.2010.523390

Robinson, K. (2013) Ken Robinson: how to escape education’s Death Valley.

Runco, M. (2004). Creativity. Annual Review of Psychology, 55, 657-685. DOI: 10.1146/annurcv.psych.55.090902.141502

Runco, M. (2014). “Big C, little c” creativity as a false dichotomy: Reality is not categorical. Creativity Research Journal, 26(1), 131-132. DOI: 10.1080/10400419.2014.873676

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