Dialectics of Creativity

Dialectic 6: Out of Mind

Linear thinking and the quest for comfort stand in the way of appreciating the dialectics of creativity. Gurus and their admirers may take note of the finding that positive mood is associated with creative ideation (e.g., Guilfordian divergent thinking) and problem-solving (e.g., Dunckerian design). Research indeed supports a causal link. Davis (2009) found in a meta-analysis of relevant studies that the induction of a positive mood facilitates creativity. Interestingly, the principal mechanism at work is not the valence of the mood per se. Although it may be true that being happy makes one bolder and more confident and thereby creative, a simple associationist mechanism seems to be sufficient. Thankfully, most people have stored more positive than negative memories. The valence of the mood state then selectively makes memories of the same valence accessible. This ‘cognitive priming’ (Isen, 1999) regulates the amount of material available for consideration in a creative context. The dialectic is that humans have limited control over their mood states. Mood is a signaling system, honed by evolution, which tells a person how well or poorly things are going at the present time. If mood came fully under voluntary control, its adaptive function as a signaling system would be lost. Dialectically-minded individuals can, however, trick themselves into positive moods by exposing themselves to situations that make them feel good. A related dialectic is power. Interpersonally powerful individuals are less constrained by social fears or habits. Hence, they are more creative than less powerful individuals (Galinsky, Magee, Gruenfeld, Whitson, & Liljenquist, 2008). Yet, they can scarcely choose to be powerful in a direct way. Their minds must trick themselves into feeling powerful; for example, they can adopt an open, expansive body posture (Carney, Cuddy, & Yap, 2010), or they can brandish power tools such as jackhammers, drills, or industrial-strength vacuum cleaners.

Dialectic 7: Progress through Defense

A final dialectic lies at the fault line between creativity and psychopathology. Freud (1905) believed that cultural production (creativity) is due to the sublimation of inadmissible sexual impulses. Weber (1934) observed that Protestant Christians are raised on the notions of depravity and damnation. Those who subscribe to the doctrine of predestination are most likely to work hard and invest their gains in an attempt to decode a signal of God’s grace. In a creative line of experiments, Cohen and colleagues put Freud and Weber together, demonstrating that sexually perturbed Protestants produce more creative output (poems, clay sculptures) than do Catholics, Jews, or unperturbed Protestants (Kim, Zeppenfeld, & Cohen, 2013). Like the other dialectics, the dialectic of cultural progress through psychological defense offers no single linear route toward creativity. Creativity emerges from conflict and contradiction. This dialectic suggests that, much like the consequences of creativity need not be positive, so is there no reason for all sources of creativity to be socially desirable or rational. 


The dialectical approach to creativity overcomes linear models. Although linear models may be useful approximations, they fail to capture the dynamic nature of creativity. It may be true and useful that taking a walk and letting the mind wander allows a creative flow of ideas. Experimental studies that support such notions are designed within the linear paradigm (Baird, Smallwood, Mrazek, Kam, Franklin, & Schooler, 2012), but the linear approach overlooks the necessity of opposing forces. Playfulness needs oversight (dialectic 1), chance needs direction (dialectic 2), innovation needs expertise (dialectic 3), creation needs destruction (dialectic 4), homeostasis needs stress (dialectic 5), mental ideation needs external stimulation (dialectic 6), and cultural progress needs psychic struggle (dialect 7). Regarding simple linear models as only partially correct (and thus categorically false), the dialectical perspective cautions against the idea that simple recipes for the enhancement of creativity are all we need to know. Seeking to raise creativity by assertion is about as promising as commanding a person to “be spontaneous!” Dialectically speaking, such efforts are not entirely futile; they just need to be understood within their dynamic context.

The dialectical perspective is similar to dual-process theories of cognition in that both assume a psychological polarity. Dual-process theories distinguish between efficient but imprecise processes (intuition, perception, emotion, heuristic thinking) and inefficient but precise processes (deliberative thinking). The two types of process or systems are assumed to work either in parallel or serially. According to the latter, more popular, view, the second type of process monitors what the first type of process is doing and occasionally steps in to correct errors. In contrast, the dialectical perspective assumes that interesting phenomena, such as creative thought, emerge from the tension between opposing psychological forces. Neither force is able to produce a result on its own.

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