Does Creativity Require Constraints?

by Scott Barry Kaufman, August 30, 2011 in Blog

If I asked you to draw a person from planet aardvark, would you be more creative if (a) I gave you no examples, or (b) gave you a few examples of what aardvarkians look like?

Research suggests you’d be more creative if I didn’t allow your mind to roam free. When people are given the task of imagining alien creatures, most use specific instances (e.g., joe the plumber) as their starting point. This effect is especially pronounced when creatures are described as being intelligent and capable of space travel. Even science fiction writers aren’t immune to this effect: content analyses of creatures invented by science fiction writers show striking similarities to animals here on earth: bilateral symmetry, and the presence of legs and eyes represented symmetrically in heads at the tops of bodies. Most science fiction writers aren’t all that imaginative!

Creativity involves variability— different ways of doing things. But creativity also involves constraints, which can either promote or preclude creativity. This simple, yet extremely important and non-obvious insight is the basis of Patricia Stokes’s excellent book Creativity from Constraints: The Psychology of Breakthrough“. Through an impressive array of examples, she makes it clear that constraints play a role in many different creative domains, and in many of the most revolutionary creative products of our time.

In many domains, there are issues that have not yet been resolved, questions that have not yet been posed, and problems that have no obvious solution. These “ill-structured” problems require a creative approach. Paradoxically, when people are given free reign to solve a problem, they tend to be wholly uncreative, focusing on what’s worked best in the past. This is due to the fundamental nature of human cognition: to imagine the future we generate what we already know from the past. According to Stokes, such freedom can hinder creativity, whereas the strategic use of constraints can promote creativity. By using constraints, reliable responses are precluded and novel surprising ones are encouraged.

What are these constraints? Some constraints promote creativity, whereas others promote conformity. Responses that are applied in an almost algorithmic fashion (e.g., rote memorization of ideas in school, copying correctly, etc.) promote conformity. Constraints that preclude low-variability, tried-and-true responses, while at the same time promoting high variability, novel responses lead to creative breakthroughs.

Stokes lists four such constraints. The first set of constraints are domain constraints. Stokes refers to these kind of constraints as “First Choruses”. Individuals in any field will have a difficult time being creative unless they first become an expert in the field. This requires learning all of the agreed-upon performance criteria of the field. These criteria are based on what Stokes refers to as goal, subject, and task constraints. Goal constraints specify a particular style, subject constraints involve content, and task constraints refer to the particular materials that are used in a domain. Put simply: domain constraints provide the structure, the foundation if you will, upon which experts can then produce variations. According to Stokes, the transition from master to creator comes when the expert imposes novel constraints on their domains.

The second set of constraints Stokes refers to are cognitive constraints. These reflect the limitations of the human mind. Many creative works are overlooked simply because they are not understood. The creator needs to keep in mind the fact that humans can process only so much information and do so in certain associative ways. Experts themselves overcome cognitive limitations via the actual process of becoming an expert— they organize their information into chunks. Still, experts— particularly those whose audience does not consist of experts— must never forget that people in other fields don’t have the same knowledge structures.

The third set of constraints Stokes points to are variability constraints. These specify how differently something must or should be done. People learn these constrains very early during expertise acquisition. Every time an individual learns a new skill, they learn not only domain-specific skills but also how differently they can apply those skills. What affects these learned variability levels? Early feedback that rewards novelty is crucial for maintaining high learned variability levels. If the task is too easy, the individual won’t see the need to try many things to solve the problem. If the task is challenging, however, the individual tries different ways of solving the problem. This then leads to praise for their creative way of solving the problem, which then leads to motivation for more creativity.

The fourth set of constraints Stokes mentions are talent constraints. These involve innate talents that Stokes believes are genetic. Although I disagree here with her strong words that “you either have them or you don’t” (p. 11), she is certainly correct that each domain requires a constellation of special talents and abilities, and the lack of such abilities will constrain your ability to achieve in that domain, and the existence of such abilities will promote your ability to achieve in that domain.

Stokes started out in art and advertising, before entering a career in Psychology later in life. Many of her examples draw upon her artistic experiences and unique point of view. She includes many examples of constraints leading to creativity in domains as varied as literature, art, fashion, architecture, advertising, and music. Different constraints play a role depending on the domain in question, and the goal, subject, and task constraints that are associated with that domain and the individual creator. For instance, Proust, Kundera, and Calvino all considered, each in their own way, the subject constraint of memory and this consideration led to task constraints (i.e., materials) that precluded the traditional structure of novels and promoted creativity.

There are important implications for everyday creativity. Almost anyone is capable of developing their creativity. Most children are extraordinarily creative, and can make things that are new and even generative. Here are four constraints that affect the path from childhood creativity to eminent creation in a field:

  • Domain constraint. This initial constraint determines what field the child will invest their time and energy. Usually, this is chosen by  the child or parent based on early success and intense interest. Once the domain or area of knowledge is chosen, this then precludes other possible domains in which the child can become an expert.
  • Variability constraint. Children often don’t learn to be highly variable in a domain because their early experiences in the domain are not challenging enough. Stokes cites the benefit of accelerated learning for acquiring what Stokes refers to as habitual variability levels (i.e., the habit of being variable). Students who receive a challenging or accelerated education learn to do many different and new things, promoting both mastery and high variability at the same time. Mastery then leads to reward, which further encourages the student to be creative. Stokes believes that highly creative individuals are comfortable being highly variable.
  • Early task constraints. Different constraints come into play at different stages of the talent development process. At the first stage, initial exposure to a domain should be playful and teachers should reward the mere involvement in a domain of inquiry. It is at this stage that the individual learns persistence and industriousness—important factors for the next stage. The next stage is the apprenticeship stage, where the child focuses on precision over playfulness. In this stage, the child learns technical competence and constructive criticism on the part of the teacher replaces unconditional praise.
  • Goals of the creator. Goals only comes into play once mastery of the domain is achieved. Here is where the path diverges. One fork leads to the reliability of the expert, where the other leads to the unpredictability of the creator. The path the individual takes most likely depends on their early experiences in a domain, and their use of novel goal constraints. A good example is Claude Monet. His habitually high level of variability in painting was learned in childhood and through early apprenticeships. What truly set Monet apart though was his ability to maintain such variability throughout his career by constantly imposing task constraints on his own work.

These constraints are intimately tied to current issues in creativity and giftedness research. One of these issues involves the developmental path from childhood creativity to adult creative achievement. This research on constraints suggests that there are various constraints, each step of the way, which impact this transition. Now that these constraints are explicit, it would be great to integrate them into new models of giftedness and child development. Children are naturally creative very early on. Schools should be more challenging for all students, not just those who are deemed “gifted”, and schools also should teach students to embrace and appreciate novelty, instead of focusing on coming up with the one correct answer.

Creativity from Constraints: The Psychology of Breakthrough” is a well thought out book and a fresh look at creativity. Its inclusion of such a wide range of domains makes it appropriate to creativity researchers as well as practicing artists and creators in any domain. The practical exercises in the Appendix, and the ideas presented in the main text could be quite useful to just about anyone who wishes to stand out from the crowd (in a novel and useful way, of course).

[This article was adapted from the following reference: Kaufman, S.B. (2006-2007). Review of Creativity from Constraints: The Psychology of Breakthrough by Patricia D. Stokes. Imagination, Cognition, and Personality, 26, 273-278.]


© 2011 by Scott Barry Kaufman

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Further Reading

Boden, M.A. (1991). The creative mind: Myths and mechanisms. New York: Basic Books.

Finke, R. (1992). Creative imagery: Discoveries and inventions in visualization. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Finke, R., Ward, T.B., & Smith, S.M. (1992). Creative cognition: Theory, research, and applications. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Stokes, P.D. (2001). Variability, constraints, and creativity: Shedding light on Claude Monet. American Psychologist, 56, 355-359.

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