The End of Creativity


Creativity is Here to Stay

Kevin Ashton’s recent essay on the end of creativity is thought-provoking, and certainly when someone with his accomplishments writes on a topic like creativity, it’s probably worth our while to give it a serious read.

While I appreciate and support Kevin’s ultimate message, that everyone can and should work to create solutions to problems, I do think he oversimplifies the topic, provides questionable evidence, and in the process ends up dismissing a simplistic characterization of one model of creativity in favor of another simplistically characterized model of creativty.

His argument is basically this: creativity is a nascent concept with mixed psychological research behind it, therefore it ought to be abandoned in favor of a collaborative, systematic, hard-work driven approach that anyone can partake in.

The biggest thing to consider about creativity is that it is a complicated and complex area of psychological research. And it’s not unique in that. Most subjects in psychology, behavioral science, and cognitive science tend to be difficult to study. Researchers continually struggle to design experiments that are ethical, replicable, and ultimately representative of real-world conditions.

Throw in something as complex and ambiguous as creativity and you’ve turned the dial to 11. Think about how many ways creativity can be interpreted, how many models for creativity have been proposed, and how many different problem domains there are to study creativity in. We can’t assume that the process applied to solving deterministic puzzles in a laboratory setting generalizes to every other kind of problem. It’s unlikely that the problem-solving process used to pin a box to a wall transfers readily to creatively solving the current Ukraine crisis. Even if we could, we can’t rely on looking at individual research papers and hope to derive sweeping generalizations from them, especially when we are rejecting one model and promoting another. After all, the supposed failure of one model does not guarantee the validity of another.

The fact of the matter is that nearly a century’s worth of research in creativity has simply shown us that there are a lot of proposed models and explanations for creativity, some more valid than others.

Ashton focuses on one particular stage in one particular model of creativity called “incubation.” Incubation is part of a multi-stage model of creativity proposed by Graham Wallas in the early 20th century. Ashton writes in End of Creativity:

“Incubation,” or solving problems by not thinking about them, has been widely studied. Berkeley’s Robert Olton spent the 1970s looking for it. In one experiment, he asked 160 people to solve a brainteaser, giving some breaks, while making others work continuously. The breaks made no difference. Olton was forced to conclude that,
“No evidence of incubation was apparent,” and added, “No study reporting evidence of incubation has survived replication by an independent investigator.”
And “insight” — the fully formed solution in a flash? German Gestalt psychologist Karl Duncker was one of the first to study that. In his most famous experiment, he gave people a box of tacks and a book of matches, and asked them to fix a candle to a wall so that it could be used as a reading light. The solution is to tack the tack-box to the wall — to see it as a thing for holding the candle, not a thing for holding the tacks. The shift from “tack-box” to “candle-holder” is the supposed “insight.” By having people think aloud, Duncker showed that the solution came incrementally, not instantly: everyone who discovered it thought of making a platform out of tacks, then realized the tack-box would be a better platform.
These experiments, although a few of hundreds, are representative. There is probably no such thing as creativity. But Duncker’s work laid the foundation for an alternative hypothesis: that extraordinary solutions come from ordinary people doing ordinary thinking.

I’m not sure where these hundreds of seemingly conclusive, unequivocal, and “representative” papers that damn creativity to a looming end are, but I’ve been unable to find them. I have been able to find several meta-analyses looking at creativity. A meta-analysis is a statistical process by which the results of multiple experiments are combined to get a better understanding of effects. They’re particularly useful in situations like this, where there are a lot of relatively small studies showing mixed results, and the chances of type II errors (think false negatives) are high.

A 2009 meta-analysis of incubation by Ut Na Sio and Thomas C. Ormerod at Lancaster University combined 117 empirical studies looking at the incubation effect. Their conclusion:

One the whole, the results of this meta-analysis support the existence of multiple types of problem-specific incubation effect. We suggest that the concept of incubation can be understood only through a close examination of the problems to which it is applied and the conditions under which it is elicited.

While one meta-analysis combining hundreds of studies about incubation doesn’t settle the greater question of creativity, it does make a strong case for the existence and validity of the incubation effect.

What these findings highlight is how important it is for us to refrain from drawing sweeping conclusions when all we have is mixed evidence. We have to instead rely on more robust scientific tools and methods to get a better understanding of what’s going on. And sometimes even that doesn’t work, so a humble appreciation for uncertainty is a must.

As for creativity, far from ending, it will likely continue to be an intense area of interest and research in psychology well into the 21st century, if not beyond. It will be exciting to see what evidence-based models for creativity will emerge.

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