Dispositions and Traits of Highly Creative People in Different Domains

Posted on June 18, 2013


Author:  Sanjay Goel, http://in.linkedin.com/in/sgoel


Creativity and inventive thinking are among the most talked about, even if not most valued,  abilities in today’s world.  Many believe that it is a God gifted talent, while many other believe (and research has also shown) that education, practice, and environment nurture it.   Perhaps both these positions are not mutually exclusive.    In the last 60 years, creative and inventive thinking has attracted the attention of many researchers in many fields, especially psychology, education, management, and technology.  Many techniques and books claim to nurture creative thinking.   Both the professionals as well as students remain curious about techniques for increasing their creativity. Many organisations, managers, and teachers are interested in knowing about the ways of increasing the creativity of their staff and/or students. 

Courses on creative writing have been around for quite some time.  Curriculum of  design and entrepreneurship education usually include creativity as an important theme for teaching.   Unfortunately STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) curriculum does not pay any specific and deliberate attention to  teaching  creativity.  Perhaps it is assumed that either it is an inborn talent or students’  engagement with the subject matter will automatically nurture it.     

For many years, both as a professional and also as a teacher, I have been curious about creativity research.  Since 2005, in some of my earlier courses, I had also included some techniques of creative and inventive thinking.   However,  in 2013,  a new course, “Problem Solving and Research Methodology”, taught to MTech and BTech (CSE) students  at JIIT, gave me the opportunity to pay more focused attention to teaching Creativity and Inventive Thinking.   In this 3 credit course with around 40+ hrs. of class room sessions, we devoted around 15 hrs. on this theme.  One of the main sub-themes under this theme was – dispositions, characteristics, abilities, habits, and traits of highly creative people.   In the last 50 years,  creativity researchers have examined many  creative people in different domains.    We discussed their research and findings  in the class.

After the course, I collated  some of these key findings and integrated different  findings into a single unified list.   For structuring this list, I chose the famous KSA (Knowledge, Skills, Attitude) model  for classifying the abilities.

Here is a simplified and domain independent list  of dispositions and abilities of highly creative people in several domains.  I don’t claim that all highly creative people in all domains exhibit all the following traits.   This list is to be taken more as a general description rather than a scientific law.     However, in spite of the scientific weaknesses in this list, both the professionals as well as the students  can still use  this list as a broad self improvement guideline for helping them in identifying the inhibiting factors and areas of improvement wrt creative thinking.   I hope that it will help the larger academic and professional community.

A.  Knowledge

  1. Expertise  in their area (Ericsson 1998).
  2. Good breadth in related areas and have a wide range of information at their command (MacKinnon 1963).
  3. Formal/Tacit understanding of some creative/inventive/breakthrough thinking and problem solving strategies.

However they recognize that knowledge and expertise is a double edged sword and act accordingly (Sternberg 2001)

B.   Skills

  1. Fluency of thinking (Guilford 1970, Torrance Test 1979, Black 1990): effortless thinking, number of responses, open-ended in thinking/decisions (if this doesn’t work, I’ll try something else), Taking advantage of chance (Barron 1998)
  2. Flexibility (Guilford 1970, Torrance Test 1979): variety of responses,  abandon old ways of thinking and adopt new ones
  3. Originality (Guilford 1970, Torrance Test 1979, Davis 1983, Black 1990): generate unusual  ideas, remote association
  4. Redefinition (Guilford 1970) – gives up old interpretations of familiar objects and uses them in new ways, redefine the problem, breakthrough thinking, extending or breaking the boundaries, getting outside the expected
  5. Elaboration (Guilford 1970, Torrance Test 1979, Black 1990)- can fill in details given a general scheme, number of details that contribute to the ‘story’ told by the response, Articulateness of storytelling: putting the response in the context, giving it an environment; Movement or action shown in the response, Richness and colorful detail in thinking and communicating, Richness of imagery: showing variety, vividness, liveliness, and intensity, colorfulness of imagery: exciting, appeal to the senses, flavorful, earthy, emotionally appealing
  6.  Analogical/Case based reasoning (Holyoak 2005)  within and across the disciplines
  7. Synthesize/combine/integrate/connect/cross fertilize   ideas/facts (Barron 1988, Torrance Test 1979, Black 1990, Sternberg 2001)
  8. Can easily think/see patterns (Barron 1998) and abstractions (Black 1990), abstractness & expressiveness of titles (Torrance Test 1979), ability to transform between figural and verbal (Torrance Test 1979)
  9. Sensing and expressiveness of feelings & emotions (Torrance Test 1979, Black 1990), Artistic sense (Davis 1983)

C.  Attitude and Perspectives

  1. Intrinsic motivation to create/improve, Awareness of their creativity (Davis 1983), Self-actualizing (Black 1990), Sense of destiny- feel destined to do creative tasks  (Black 1990)
  2. Heightened Perception (Davis 1983),  Unusual Perspective (Black 1990) and Intuition– observant (Black 1990) easily sees into things/ideas/ problems, sense change, observant in a differentiated fashion, discerning, macro/micro perspectives (Black 1990), visualize (sensory/imaginary/intuitive) from unusual viewpoint (Barron 1988, Torrance Test 1979, Black 1990) including from inside; Intuitive in perceptions and thinking
  3. Attraction to complexity and novelty (Davis 1983), Observe and appreciate creativity of others (Sternberg 2001), Specific interests (Sternberg 2001) though often multiple and varied (Black 1990)
  4. Sensitivity to problems (Guilford 1970): sees that something is wrong/lacking/mysterious, state difficulties/deficiencies in products/ institutions,  sees each problem as unique that requires a unique solution, focus on purposes, sensitivity to constraints/context/complexity/ levels/risks, insists on pointing out problems where others wish to deny their existence, and it is this that so often makes them  unpopular (MacKinnon 1978), delay gratification (Sternberg 2001), Severely critical of their work, themselves and potential of their dreams plus potential of others not being met (Black 1990)
  5. Future oriented, sees possibilities (Black 1990), more focused on “what’s next” than “look what I did!”, open-ended thinking (if this doesn’t work I’ll try something else) continuous learning and reflective improvisation – see mistakes/weak ideas as seeds of good ideas (Sternberg 2001), open to experience the inner self and the outer world, curiosity (Davis 1983, Black 1990), deliberate practice (Ericsson 1998)
  6. Open-mindedness (Davis 1983) – flexibility in considering alternatives and opinions/perspectives; Tolerance of ambiguity (Guilford 1970, Black 1990, Sternberg 2001): willingness to accept some uncertainty in conclusions, not using rigid categories
  7. Risk taking (Barron 1988, MacKinnon 1963, Davis 1983, Sternberg 2001)- Psychological/Spiritual courage to:
    1. independent in thought and action (MacKinnon 1963), non-conforming , ingenious often in thinking and living, provocative viewpoint (Black 1990)
    2. challenge assumptions (Barron 1988, Sternberg 2001)
    3. question what is generally accepted, challenge assumptions
    4.  be destructive in order that something better can be constructed
    5. resists early completions or answers
    6. defy the crowd – redirect and/or reconstruct  in a different direction,  reinitiate
    7. experience the opposites of his nature and to attempt some reconciliation of them in an individuated expression of himself
  8. They contain contradictory extremes (Csikszentmihalyi 1996); (a+b:  a and b simultaneously; alternate between a and b)
    1.  highly energetic (Davis 1983, Black 1990) + quiet and at rest
    2. smart +  naive 
    3. playfulness + discipline (Black 1990); responsibility + irresponsibility
    4. imagination /fantasy (unreal objects, characters, systems, processes) (Torrance Test 1979, Black 1990) + rooted sense of reality
    5. extraversion  + introversion;  individualistic +  creative collaborations (Sternberg 2001)
    6. humble  + proud
    7.  psychologically androgynous  (psychological responses:  masculine + feminine)  
    8. conservative + rebellious/iconoclastic
    9. very passionate (Black 1990) +  extremely objective about their work
    10. experience peak emotions (slights and anxieties  + great joy)  
  9. Sense of Humor (Torrance Test 1979, Davis 1983, Black 1990)  unique, varied, humorous perspective, can do juxtaposition of two or more incongruities

Let us reflect:

Often as educators and managers, many of us  sincerely believe and claim that we encourage creativity among our students and staff.  The above list and following questions can help us reflect and improvise our practice:

1. Do we accept and encourage students/colleagues with above listed dispositions and traits?

2. Do we give opportunities to our students/colleagues for developing above listed dispositions and traits?

3. How do we help develop/enhance above listed dispositions and traits among our students/colleagues?


  1. Barron Frank (1988): Putting creativity to work, Robert J. Sternberg  (Ed), The Nature of Creativity: Contemporary Psychological Perspectives, Cambridge University Press,  pp 76-98, USA
  2. Black Robert Alan (1990, 2008), 52 Common Traits of Highly Creative People
  3. Csikszentmihalyi   Mihaly  (1996), The Creative Personality: Ten paradoxical traits of the creative personality, Psychology Today, Jul/Aug.
  4. Davis  Gary A. (1983), Creativity is forever, Kendall/Hunt Pub. Co.
  5. Ericsson K. Anders (1998, 2006): The Scientific Study of Expert Levels of Performance: general implications for optimal learning and creativity , High Ability Studies, Springer 9:1, 75-100
  6. Holyoak Keith J. (2005), Analogy,  Holyoak  K.J. and Morroson Robert G. (Ed.), The Cambridge Handbook on Thinking and Reasoning, Cambridge University Press
  7. Guilford J.P. (1970)  ‘Traits of creativity’ in H.H. Anderson (ed.), Creativity and its Cultivation, Harper, 1959, pp 142-61, reprinted in P.E. Vernon (ed.), Creativity, Penguin Books, pp 167-88.
  8. MacKinnon D.W, (1963), Creativity: a multi-faceted phenomenon, 1963,  http://webspace.ringling.edu/~ccjones/curricula/01-02/sophcd/readings/creativity.html
  9. MacKinnon D.W, (1978), In Search of human effectiveness: Identifying and developing creativity. Buffalo, NY: Bearly Ltd.
  10. Sternberg, R. J. (2001). Teaching psychology students that creativity is a decision. The General Psychologist, 36(1), pp 8–11.
  11. Torrance Test of Creative Thinking (TTCT) (1979)
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