How Constraints Force Us to Be <em>More</em> Creative

Research suggests you'd be more creative if Iallow your mind to roam free. When people are given the task of imagining alien creatures, most use specific instances (e.g. their grandmother) as their starting point.
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If I asked you to draw a person from planet aardvark, would you be more creative if (a) I gave you no examples, or (b) gave you a few examples of what aardvarkians look like?

Research suggests you'd be more creative if I didn't allow your mind to roam free. When people are given the task of imagining alien creatures, most use specific instances (e.g. their grandmother) as their starting point. This effect is especially pronounced when creatures are described as being intelligent and capable of space travel. Even science fiction writers aren't immune to this effect: content analyses of creatures invented by science fiction writers show striking similarities to animals here on earth, including bilateral symmetry and the presence of symmetrical legs and eyes placed in heads at the tops of bodies. Most science fiction writers aren't all that imaginative!

Creativity involves variability -- different ways of doing things. But creativity also involves constraints, which can either promote or preclude creativity. This simple, yet extremely important and non-obvious insight is the basis of Patricia Stokes's excellent book "Creativity from Constraints: The Psychology of Breakthrough". Through an impressive array of examples, Stokes makes it clear that constraints play a role in many different creative domains, and in many of the most revolutionary creative products of our time.

In many domains, there are issues that have not yet been resolved, questions that have not yet been posed, and problems that have no obvious solution. These "ill-structured" problems require a creative approach. Paradoxically, when people are given free reign to solve a problem, they tend to be wholly uncreative, focusing on what's worked best in the past. This is due to the fundamental nature of human cognition: to imagine the future we generate what we already know from the past. According to Stokes, such freedom can hinder creativity, whereas the strategic use of constraints can promote creativity. By using constraints, reliable responses are precluded and novel surprising ones are encouraged.

Every time you learn a new skill, you learn not only domain-specific skills but also how differently you can apply those skills. Early feedback that rewards novelty is crucial for maintaining high learned variability levels. If the task is too easy, you won't see the need to try many things to solve the problem. If the task is challenging, however, you will try different ways of solving the problem. This leads to praise for your creative way of solving the problem, which then leads to motivation for more creativity.

There are many examples of constraints leading to creativity in domains as varied as literature, art, fashion, architecture, advertising and music. Different constraints play a role depending on the constraints of the domain and the creator (amount of expertise acquired, cognitive limitations of the audience, talent levels). For instance, Proust, Kundera and Calvino, each in their own way constrained their topic to memory, and this led to novel constraints on materials that precluded the traditional structure of novels and promoted creativity.

There are important implications for everyday creativity. Almost anyone is capable of developing his or her creativity. Most children are extraordinarily creative and can make things that are new and even generative. Here are four constraints that affect the path from childhood creativity to eminent creation in a field:

  • Domain constraint. This initial constraint determines what field the child will invest their time and energy. Usually, this is chosen by the child or parent based on early success and intense interest. Once the domain or area of knowledge is chosen, this then precludes other possible domains in which the child can become an expert.
  • Variability constraint. Children often don't learn to be highly variable in a domain because their early experiences in the domain are not challenging enough. Stokes cites the benefit of accelerated learning for acquiring what she refers to as habitual variability levels (i.e. the habit of being variable). Students who receive a challenging or accelerated education learn to do many different and new things, promoting both mastery and high variability at the same time. Mastery then leads to reward, which further encourages the student to be creative. Stokes believes that highly creative individuals are comfortable being highly variable.
  • Early task constraints. Different constraints come into play at different stages of the talent development process. At the first stage, initial exposure to a domain should be playful and teachers should reward the mere involvement in a domain of inquiry. It is at this stage that the individual also learns persistence and industriousness -- important factors for the next stage. The next stage is the apprenticeship stage, where the child focuses on precision over playfulness. In this stage, the child learns technical competence and constructive criticism on the part of the teacher replaces unconditional praise.
  • Goals of the creator. Goals only comes into play once mastery of the domain is achieved. Here is where the path diverges. One fork leads to the reliability of the expert, where the other leads to the unpredictability of the creator. The path the individual takes most likely depends on their early experiences in a domain, and imposing novel constraints on their goals. A good example is Claude Monet. His habitually high level of variability in painting was learned in childhood and through early apprenticeships. What truly set Monet apart though was his ability to maintain such variability throughout his career by constantly imposing constraints on his materials.

These constraints are intimately tied to current issues in creativity and giftedness research, including the developmental path from childhood creativity to adult creative achievement. This research suggests that there are various constraints, each step of the way, which impact this transition. Now that these constraints are explicit, it would be great to integrate them into new models of giftedness and child development. Children are naturally creative very early on. Schools should be more challenging for all students, not just those who are deemed "gifted" and schools should also teach students to embrace and appreciate novelty, instead of focusing on coming up with the one correct answer. At the same time, children should be taught to embrace the creative use of constraints. This doesn't just apply to children, though. By understanding the importance of variability, and considering novel constraints, we can all become more creative.

[This article was adapted from the following reference: Kaufman, S.B. (2006-2007). Review of Creativity from Constraints: The Psychology of Breakthrough by Patricia D. Stokes. Imagination, Cognition, and Personality, 26, 273-278.]

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Further Reading

Boden, M.A. (1991). The creative mind: Myths and mechanisms. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Finke, R. (1992). Creative imagery: Discoveries and inventions in visualization. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Finke, R., Ward, T.B., & Smith, S.M. (1992). Creative cognition: Theory, research, and applications. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Stokes, P.D. (2001). Variability, constraints, and creativity: Shedding light on Claude Monet. American Psychologist, 56, 355-359.

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