Just Published: A Comprehensive Overview of Creativity Research

Now available from Oxford University Press:

Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation, Second Edition


When I published the first edition of Explaining Creativity in 2006, it was the first overview of creativity research. Since that time, the field has matured significantly, with two more textbook overviews (by Mark Runco and Robert Weisberg) and several edited handbooks, and a lot more great research. So I’ve been hard at work these last two years, writing this second edition… It’s radically new, with seven new chapters, 8 new appendixes, and every other chapter rewritten. As Dean Keith Simonton (UC Davis) says,

Without doubt, Explaining Creativity is the most comprehensive single-volume presentation of what we know about the creative process, person, and product. Besides that, the book is extremely well-written.

Here’s a small sample of some of the more surprising things you’ll learn in this book, that aren’t collected in any other book about creativity:

Which famous creativity researcher first introduced Timothy Leary to psychedelic mushrooms?

  • Frank X. Barron (Chapter 2, p. 18)

In what year and location was the first patent granted?

  • 1474 in Venice (Chapter 2, p. 21)

The fourth-grade slump is a myth; creativity continually increases with age. (Chapter 4, p. 74)

In recent decades, the formerly observed drop in creativity in later years is no longer occuring; find out why on page 288. (Chapter 15)

Abraham Maslow’s graduate advisor, Harry Harlow, first documented that external rewards interfered with motivation, in a study with which animal species?

  • Monkeys (Chapter 4, pp. 78-79)

The story about Archimedes shouting Eureka in the bathtub is a myth; find out how we know on page 97. (Chapter 5)

When was the ten year rule first documented, and in which area of expertise?

  • In 1899 with telegraph operators. (Chapter 5, p. 93)

The story of Kekule dreaming of a snake biting its tail and then realizing the molecular structure of benzene is a myth; find out the story on pages 373-374. (Chapter 20)

The story of Mendel discovering modern genetics and then being ignored for 35 years is false; find out the real story on pages 378-379. (Chapter 20)

In what year was the first creativity training program?

  • 1937 at GE (Appendix A, p. 439)

Who designed the cover graphic of the Creativity Research Journal?

  • Mark Runco’s son, Chris Runco (Appendix C, p. 445) 

Distrust and Creativity

A new research study* explores this question: Does being suspicious and distrustful make you more creative, or less? Common sense seems to provide two opposed possibilities. First, if you’re distrustful, it means that you’re thinking about nonobvious alternatives, and that sounds like creativity. But on the other hand, if you’re distrustful, you’ll be less likely to collaborate and share information, and that would make you less creative in the group settings where so much real-world creativity occurs.

The researchers manipulated a person’s level of distrust by “priming” them with an initial task, either to subliminally increase their distrust, or else to increase their trust, tendencies. They found that being primed to distrust has negative consequences for creativity in the public, social sphere. But when people were creating in private, priming their distrusting tendencies enhanced their creativity by enhancing their cognitive flexibility.

As with so much creativity research, it seems we’re talking about strategies rather than stable personality traits. The best way to be creative is to be adaptable; to modify your approach depending on the situation. If you’re working alone, be a little suspicious and explore alternative possibilities. If you’re in a group, open up and trust a bit more.

*Jennifer Mayer and Thomas Mussweiler (2011). “Suspicious spirits, flexible minds: When distrust enhances creativity.” JPSP, Vol. 101, No. 6, pp. 1262-1277.

Making the Changes: Improvisation and Business

Today I’m at the University of Guelph, near Toronto Canada, giving a keynote at a conference that’s applying jazz improvisation to business challenges. It’s hosted by a large research grant that’s based here: “Improvisation, Community, and Social Practice” (generally known as ICASP); I’ve been an external consultant on this grant from the beginning over five years ago. Other speakers include: Nancy Adler (McGill), Ken Aldcroft, Alan Convery, Pete Johnston, Mark Laver, Chris MacDonald (Rotman), and Scott Thompson.