Creativity: Facts or Myths?

“Creativity comes from the right side of the brain.” “Children are more creativity than adults.” “Creativity happens primarily in art.” “Only a few rare geniuses are really creative.”

Not true. None of it.

Creativity myths are found across the globe. In fact, Benedek et al. (2021) examined beliefs about creativity across six countries: the United States, Austria, Germany, Poland, China and Georgia. They found what they described as “wide spread (sic) biases in the public conception of creativity.” Lots of folks believe things about creativity that aren’t consistent with the research, in simpler terms, things that simply aren’t true. This is particularly true among individuals who had lower levels of education and were more likely to get their information from TV and social media than more academic sources. This is not surprising, but it is concerning.

Creativity myths were supported, on average, by half the people in Benedek’s study,  across nations. The creativity myths most likely to be believed described creativity as more childlike and more likely to occur by chance. They viewed creative accomplishments as more likely to occur in an instant than be the result of systematic work across time. For example, the large majority of the participants thought children were more creative than adults. About a third of participants viewed creativity as primarily existing in the arts. Such myths are damaging because they present creativity as something almost magical: appearing in the imagination of children and disappearing with adulthood, except for the fortunate few for whom creative breakthroughs happen in spectacular “Aha” moments. Myths make it possible for us to shrug our shoulders at opportunities to develop creativity, in ourselves or others, because it isn’t seen as the province of ordinary folks, or to become discouraged in the absolutely essential stages of education, hard work, failure, and resilience that are part of any important creative breakthrough.

The truth is, even the most creatively gifted individuals must work hard over time. We understand the role of hard work and persistence in athletes. Why not those whose discoveries move us forward in other ways? The scientist preparing new life-saving medicines, the choreographer envisioning new forms or dance, the researcher who comes to understand the meaning of puzzling climate data, and the writer whose novel touches our hearts, all have invested years of preparation before their creative breakthroughs. None of it happened by magic and none of it could be done by children. Yet it all was important creativity.

If we are to prepare students—or ourselves—for creative activities large or small, we must understand how creativity actually works and let go of the quest for easy insights. Flexible thinking, elaboration, and originality all find their roots in a prepared mind and enough understanding of a discipline to move forward. This requires leaving creativity myths behind.

First, of course, we must identify the creativity myths. There are plenty of handy online lists to get you started. Here is an article from Psychology Today based on the research cited above. Other lists focus on innovation, education, or related fields. Once you’ve identified the myths most toxic to you, your students, or your work environment, please share them. Like so many damaging ideas, the best defense is exposing what is false to light and understanding.

Benedek, M., Karstendiek, M.  Ceh, S. M., GrabnerR. H., Krammer, G., Lebuda, I., Silvia, P. J., Cotter, K. N., Li, Y., Hu, W., Martskvishvili, K., Kaufman, J. C. (2021).  Creativity myths: Prevalence and correlates of misconceptions on creativity. Personality and Individual Differences, 182, 111068.

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