Personality Traits of Highly Creative Individuals

Attempts to define the personality traits of highly creative persons must be interpreted with caution. Clearly, all kinds of people, from all backgrounds, with a variety of personality characteristics, have made creative contributions to all domains of endeavor. Nonetheless, systematic attempts to study the personalities of highly creative individuals have uncovered two categories of traits that highly creative persons seem to share. One category includes descriptors such as spontaneous, playful, curious, open to experience and flexible. The second category includes traits like determined, independent, confident, and persistent. Clearly, creative persons are quite complex. At once, they are childlike in their ability to be open and interested in all possibilities, and exceptionally mature in the intense focus they maintain on their work.

Donald MacKinnon and Frank Barron were the first to attempt to capture this complexity in their landmark studies of creative lives at the Institute of Personality Assessment and Research in the 1960s. They conducted in-depth investigations of highly creative individuals from many disciplines; their participants included well-known mathematicians, architects, and writers. By administering a wide range of personality inventories, interviewing and observing these people over several days, and using appropriate controls, researchers were able to describe these highly creative people with an impressive degree of clarity and depth. They found the highly creative to be more complicated, imaginative, flexible, and original in their thinking than matched groups of less creative professionals in the same fields. They were also more individualistic, courageous, independent, and confident. These qualities seem to propel their work in two directions. They are excited about new possibilities, and so generate a range of new ideas.

They also have faith in the value of their ideas and are thus able to pursue them assuredly.

The continuous stream of novel ideas that is characteristic of creative people may emerge from a chronically low level of latent inhibition. Latent inhibition is a process by which individuals filter out much incoming sensory information as a way of focusing attention on new or salient information. Those with low latent inhibition have less of a tendency to do such filtering. Jordan Peterson and colleagues have conducted research linking low latent inhibition with openness to experience and the production of creative ideas. Not all individuals with low latent inhibition are highly creative, however, suggesting that personality characteristics that support following through with creative efforts are also important.

Most current theories of creativity include personality traits related to openness as well as traits related to persistence. For example, both categories of traits appear in Teresa Amabile's componential theory of creativity, within the 'creativity-relevant processes' component. The first category includes spontaneity and tolerance for ambiguity, leading a person to take in and produce a wide variety of perceptions and ideas. The second category includes a high degree of self discipline in matters concerning work; an ability to delay gratification; perseverance in the face of frustration; independence of judgment; a high degree of autonomy; an internal locus of control; a willingness to take risks; and a high degree of self-initiated striving for excellence. Taken together, these two types of traits allow a person to both generate and follow through with creative ideas. Robert Sternberg's investment theory also names personality as an important component necessary for creativity. The personality traits proposed in that theory also would facilitate unusual responses, such as tolerance for ambiguity and moderate risk taking, and support follow-through, such as willingness to surmount obstacles, perseverance, and self-esteem.

Research provides support for the notion that highly creative persons are highly energetic persons - both in generating ideas and in pursuing them. Although there can be strong differences in personalities, especially across fields, this feature emerges consistently. One study found highly creative persons to have a passion for autonomy, a high degree of self sufficiency, and a heightened sense of identity. Another showed that the most creative individuals tend to be highly ambitious and confident in their views. This self-assurance may allow creative people to focus on personal motives and goals, rather than being overly influenced by the opinions of others. In order to study this possibility, Teresa Amabile and colleagues developed the Work Preference Inventory, which assesses motivational orientation as a personality characteristic. They identified two primary directions for work motivation: intrinsic motivation, which is marked by a focus on the challenge and the enjoyment of the work, and extrinsic motivation, which is marked by a focus on external reward for one's work. This research found that an intrinsic motivational orientation is positively correlated with creativity on a variety of tasks, in several different subject populations. Also, people involved in creative professions, such as artists, poets, and research scientists, were higher in intrinsic motivation and lower in extrinsic motivation than the general population. Recent work by Vikram Prabhu and colleagues confirmed that intrinsic motivation is an enduring personality trait with a positive relation to creativity.

This kind of research is important in that it extends beyond the basic personality traits of creative persons and begins to explore the motives that underlie these traits. Research on personality traits describes creative individuals, but does not explain them. How does the motivation that characterizes creative persons arise?

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