Creativity in Science and Engineering, Part 2

Personality traits associated with creativity

See Part 1

Which personality traits are associated with creativity can help us know which individuals will be best suited to a role in R&D. So first, I think it is worthwhile to specify what I mean by creativity. Borrowing from an essay on creativity from Ronald Standler: A creative person does things that have never been done before. Standler goes on to make several good distinctions. Creativity is not identical to intelligence, which is furthermore not identical to academic accomplishment. 

Another good distinction is made by Bruce Charlton. Creativity is not just the application of abstract intelligence to a complex problem. This is the kind of thing I can imagine a 1st grade teacher telling her students: you just need to be more creative! However, as Charlton notes, this is more of a manifestation of neoteny, novelty-seeking, than any kind of actual creativity. So, Standler's definition needs some modification. We might operationally narrow the definition to be doing things that have not been done before in a useful way that is non-obvious. If it was obvious, anyone of sufficiently high intelligence could figure it out, and it is clear that not all intelligent people are creative. Also, it seems important to look for useful things to weed out pure novelty seeking.

Standler and Charlton both go on to look at the personality traits that they have identified with creative people. Standler lists:

  • Diligence
  • Stubbornness
  • Male
  • Eccentric

His list is based mostly on personal experience and biographies of famous scientists and inventors. Please be aware that everything here is based on "for the most part" kind of associations and correlations, so please don't be offended if you don't fit the criteria.

Charlton identifies a specific personality trait Psychoticism, as being correlated with creativity.

Perhaps surprisingly, creativity has often been found to be predicted by moderately high levels of Eysenck’s personality trait of ‘Psychoticism’ [31]. The trait of Psychoticism has been well-validated [6] and [32]; high psychoticism combines low-Agreeableness (e.g., higher selfishness, independence from group norms), low Conscientiousness (for example impulsivity, sensation-seeking) with a style of cognition that involves fluent, associative and rapid production of many ideas. So, although a trait of low Psychoticism implies a rational and pro-social personality (which are usually highly desirable traits); moderately high Psychoticism is not merely antisocial but has positive aspects as well – since it has flavours of independence of spirit and a more spontaneous and fantasy-like mode of thinking. This style of cognition seems to be a basis for creativity.

An interesting contrast here is that Standler identifies diligence, which is probably similar to conscientiousness, as an important factor, whereas Charlton downplays that factor. Clearly, there is something to be said for the idea that if you never finish anything, your creativity doesn't really amount to much. However, I think that perhaps the solution here is that Charlton is talking about a trait or tendency, rather than a result like Standler is. By way of analogy, my mad scientist co-worker has a messy desk, and needs meeting reminders, but damn does he work hard. I think the missing factor may be obsessiveness. Charles Murray noted in Human Accomplishment that the most famous figures in science and art have a tendency to be obsessed with their work, to the exclusion of even their friends and families, if they had families. Standler mentioned this in passing, but I think it probably helps make up for the lack of conscientiousness. A creative person is often not who you want organizing the lab space, because they just aren't that interested in it. They are going to get distracted by some new idea. Someone with a high C, on the other hand, would be very good at this.

One of the critical factors of true creativity is a certain independence of mind. Not too much, because creative individuals do in fact have to be able to work with other people, but just enough to be able to insist that "yes, my idea does work". Also important is a certain degree of obsessiveness, because that is a critical factor in ensuring something actually gets accomplished, because creative people are certain to be bored by routine work. A little bit of stubbornness helps, because you need to persist in the face of obstacles both managerial and scientific. The last bit that Charlton identifies as a more spontaneous and fantasy-like mode of thinking is hard to pin down, but it seems basically correct.

Now that the traits have been identified, the question becomes how do you manage this creativity? Given the traits identified, this may seem difficult, but the task must be done. Creativity in science and engineering is often directed to specific ends, and in engineering, you must ultimately make money. So what do you do with all these crazy people?