What happens when Creativity becomes more important than Research?

What happens when Creativity becomes more important than Research?

From the Theory of Relativity to Apple’s 1,000 new jobs in Cork.


By Kasia Pyrz


It was one of those long evenings during which motivating a thirteen-year-old to memorise internal parts and workings of a volcano was proving to be a challenge. Being a very logical type, he needed a really valid answer for the somewhat justified “So what?” query:

“Knowledge is power” – I said certain of the elegant authority of this saying – “Once you can demonstrate what you have learnt, you will feel empowered in the classroom…” – I continued taken by my own analogy. “But imagination is more important than knowledge” – his riposte was immediate and matter-of-fact.

There was little arguing left after that – but – was there really? Since when a second-level junior questions what is squeezed tightly in his or hers subject books? Perhaps since Johannes Gutenberg invented a movable-type printing press around 1450, yet, there are a very few, who use this questioning to come up with a new Theory of Relativity… There are even fewer of those, who refer to their power of the creative thought as an ultimate source for their attainment, as it was the case of Albert Einstein.

It is not even that creativity is a fade, quite opposite: there are prestigious research funders that underlie the innovative potential as a crucial factor of ‘excellent research’ (1-2) and long-accomplished laboratories provide their staff with manuals of ‘how to be more creative’ (3). On a different note, the world’s most valuable company announced their technological transformation in 1997 with a slogan that became a lifestyle statement of the late 20th century generation of emerging professionals: ‘Think Different – an ultimate assertion of the creative out of the box philosophy. Eighteen years later Tánaiste Joan Burton sees the American giant’s investment in additional 1,000 jobs in their European headquarters based in Cork as “a profound statement of belief in talent and creativity of the Irish workforce” (4). Neither much needed IT skills nor intelligence behind hardly-earned degrees were mentioned as the highest assets of the future workers, but the resources of originality and inspiration so abound in the Irish culture[1].

Thus, if creativity is the secret ingredient of not only art but also business and science alike, why is it so difficult to foster and to manage, why is it so rare to apply up to the world-changing intensity? A diagram created by the Ngram Viewer, the enormous online data set of scanned books, shows what happens when we check frequency of the word ‘research’ and compare it to that of ‘progress’ in all digitalised books published between 1950 and 2008: while the former has been climbing since mid-1960s, the latter has not been a companion of this trend, quite the opposite. So, if research does not necessarily equal progress, could it be also due to the fact that the creativity’s line on our diagram appears very flat since 1970s when the first modern theories of creativity became popularised? There is a paradox in how ‘Think Different’ became a necessity and a highly priced resource and how slow and inconsistent is its uptake in the real-world applications. Psychology is co-responsible for this illogical pattern.


Fig. 1 Google Ngram Viewer: a diagram of the frequency of terms: ‘research’, ‘science’, ‘progress’, ‘intelligence’ and ‘creativity’ appearing in digitalised books from 1950 to 2008.

In fact, creativity has been one of ‘psychology’s orphans’ (5) and a moving target for psychometric measurement. The discipline has been slow to ensure evidence-based, stimulating models or even an agreed-on definition. Even more so, there has been a long tradition in psychology to associate creative abilities with madness and genius: all three concepts often mentioned interchangeably. While this understanding is naïve and has been challenged due to its serious limitations (6), it continues to alienate creative efforts from so-called normal people. There were alternative theories proposed but none has offered a complete explanation. The trait-approach involves associating creativity with specific personality traits, mostly openness to experience, optimism, ambition or self-confidence (7-8), yet the effect sizes are weak to moderate and do not explain creativity per se. The Creative Cognition Approach (9) argues that mental processes are the essence of creative endeavour: generative processes allow for forming associations between things while explorative processes evaluate their functions and potential. This framework provides measurable constructs and cause-effect hypotheses but it has been criticised for its lack of falsifiability (10), in other words, currently it cannot be determined through testing whether it is right or not. Neuroscience has the most up-to-date and fascinating insights into the creative mind/brain (11), but there is still much of the grey area of ambiguity and inconsistence.

How is research related to creativity? Ambivalently. If we take a broadly accepted definition of creativity as ‘the production of something both novel and useful’ (11), then research embodies it. The original contribution to science is a condition depending on which novices are accepted and novelty of presented enquiry is the most sought-after characteristic by publishers. On the other hand, scientists have been avoiding the creativity trap due to its weak, fuzzy conceptual or methodological edges. Creativity is destroyed more than it is supported even in environments where new ideas are valued (12). The reasons for this are several but the most widespread are: misunderstanding of how the creative process functions and the general bad or no management of the creative potential. Some of the cause-effect scenarios as presented in Figure 2 are the daily experience of most researchers on all levels of their career. This list goes on and reflects a pyramidal order in the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: it might be very difficult to achieve its top, where creativity is put, if much more basic needs of security are not always met. Researchers, who experience high-intensity work schedules, struggle to secure stable contracts and face several rejections by reviewers and employers may be far from reaching deeply into their ingenious potential.



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Fig. 2 Selected barriers to creativity in research: causes and effects (by the author)


But psychology, while paired with modern technologies and a growing body of trans-disciplinary research, can also change the place creativity has in our life in ways that were not possible before. Based on cognitive and neuroscience models, it can provide creativity-training strategies to enhance the performance of associated brain areas and mental processes. Health psychology can help preventing creative blocks and burnout. Organisational psychology could give examples of effective creativity management in the working environment and research groups. Social psychology might offer insights into mechanisms of academic conformity, peer-reviewed pressure and research world dynamics. Whichever way creativity is handled it will need to involve a combined effort of all stakeholders in research (fig. 3). A cycle of support of any creative endeavour in daily research practice starts from nurturing personal creativity, which often means reaching beyond the main research topics and expanding one’s horizon with new experiences and knowledge. Looking at the same problem with the same state of mind rarely brings about a novel solution. A common trait of perfectionism is a likely impediment to creativity: ‘if you are not prepared to be wrong, you will never come up with anything original’ (13). But creative researchers thrive only in creative environments, where all efforts, including flawed ones are valued, where colleagues communicate openly within and across disciplines and all resources are handled in a transparent way. George Boole, for example, had found in the newly founded academic institution of UCC an ideal environment where he could freely experiment and innovate, without been blocked by the establishment. In turn, a wider support is needed to have creativity recognised as a priced ‘natural resource’ on social policy and funding levels. Only this appreciation will allow creativity to be studied and applied widely as one of the priority needs of modern science and modern society.

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Fig. 3 A cycle of creativity support in research (by the author).

Is imagination more important than knowledge? It has certainly eluded science for decades. Creativity and innovation are on the big ‘come back’ into contemporary education systems (e.g. the new Junior Certificate framework in Ireland) and everyday language of the classroom, business and research tasks. More accurately, they never quite went away, just our rapidly developing world calls for imaginative visions and resourceful answers to its several challenges. Creativity needs to be seen as a higher-level brainpower and treated as such: it needs to be recognised in schools curricula, national and local budgets, in everyday life and, finally, in research. It will take lots of imagination to find more comprehensive and adequate ways to measure or prioritise human creative capacities in everyday research, but the potential gain is well worth the efforts. If ‘knowledge is power’, then creativity is at its beginning and at the ultimate end. Psychology is well positioned to explore and to lead the management of creativity as a human resource and behaviour. But creativity is also more important than psychology and than research, thus, we need as much of the assistance and collaborative insights from all levels and dimensions of science, art, daily experience etc. as we can possibly and resourcefully gather. Let us imagine today so we can achieve tomorrow…



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