Skip to main content
December 19, 2018

How to look at art: To understand creativity we need to define what is NOT creative

Kashyap Gohel, 25, Romantic Coast
Kashyap Gohel, 25, Romantic Coast

Creativity is the skill of the 21st century. As we wish to understand better what creativity really is, we must understand what is NOT creative.

In 1931, American phycologist Norman Maier carried out the ‘two-string problem’ experiment. Two strings hang from the ceiling to the floor in a room, one near the wall and another closer to the middle of the room. 

The participants must find solutions for tying the strings together. Beginning what seems an easy task, a participant takes the end of one string, brings it to the middle of the room only to discover it is not long enough for him to grab the other string. 

The experimenter then points out to other objects in the room, a chair and a pair of pliers. Some participants place the chair between the strings, attach one string to it, bring the other one over and complete the task. 

Other participants tie the pliers to the middle string so it swings clear of the floor, send it in motion like a pendulum, walk over to the other string, pull it over, catch the swinging pendulum, untie the pliers and tie the strings together.



The point of the experiment is to demonstrate what is creative and uncreative thinking and behaviour. The first solution is deemed uncreative, because the chair is used in the ‘explicitly obvious’ way, while the second is seen as highly creative because the participants change the meaning of the pliers, giving them the entirely new use. 

Interestingly, only 39 per cent of the participants came up with the pliers solution on their own, while 23 per cent failed to see it even after receiving the helpful hints (N. Maier, 1931, Reasoning in humans: II. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, 12, 181-194 ).



Dean Keith Simonton, a Professor of Psychology at the University of California, who is known for his studies of human creativity and the book ‘The Origins of Genius’, wrote recently that there are seven distinctions of uncreative thinking and behaviour (K. Simonton, 2018, Defining Creativity: What is Not Creative?. Journal of Creative Behaviour, 52, 80-89 ). They are:

‘Routine, reproductive or habitual’ thinking. This is when we respond to everyday mundane tasks in a routine way. For example, when we decide what to have for breakfast.

‘Fortuitous response’ is when we solve a problem accidentally, like winning a lottery ticket using birthday numbers, for example. We learn nothing in the process.

‘Irrational perseveration’ is when we repeatedly applying an idea that does not solve the problem. This phenomenon is reflected in the popular saying, ‘Insanity is doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results.’

‘Problem finding’ is when we discover that an idea that solved a problem in the past does not work anymore. This is useful as it can help to find a new solution.

‘Rational suppression’ is when we know that a problem cannot be solved due to previous experience.

‘Irrational suppression’ is when we lack motivation or discipline to solve a problem. Like a person, who after the heart attack, does not change his diet due to love of junk food.

‘Blissful ignorance’ is when the likelihood of displaying creative thinking and behaviour is very small.

Knowing what can minimise our creativity helps us to understand what can boost it.


Alla Tkachuk is the founder of the MASK creativity training in Africa: [email protected]

Poll of the day