The Five Colleges of Ohio
Teagle Foundation

Creative Thinking: Characteristics & Traits

Characteristics Associated With Creative Proccesses and Products

The list below focuses on cognitive and affective skills or abilities that creativity researchers have associated with creative individuals, although there is clearly no consensus opinion that all of these must be present in a creative person or process. Some of these traits also characterize successful critical thinking, and some are distinct yet not mutually exclusive. Most of the research that speaks to these characteristics has focused on industrialized western nations and cultures.

One should also take into consideration Sternberg and Lubart’s point that “creativity is hypothesized to involve more than a simply sum of a person’s attained level of functioning on each component.” Certain individuals and components may have thresholds above and below which creativity can or cannot take place; strengths in one area may balance weaknesses in others; and high levels of interactions between components can enhance creativity beyond a simple summing equation (Sternberg 1999).

  • Idea generation – coming up with new ideas, new alternatives to solving problems, and new variations on a theme (flexibility, fluency, originality, divergent thinking).
  • Curiosity – wanting to know more about something; a desire to dig deeper into a subject; an unwillingness to settle for conventional explanations.
  • Imagination – the faculty or action of producing ideas, especially mental images of what is not present or had not been experienced; the ability to consider alternative points of views; ways of life; and beliefs both across time and across social and physical space. Imagination is also the ability to pose counterfactuals (“what ifs”), to suppose, and to reason through the implications of such alternative scenarios.
  • Reasoning by metaphor and analogy – finding homologies; recognizing common traits across otherwise dissimilar phenomena; interpreting or communicating something that is unfamiliar or ambiguous by means of comparing it to something more familiar and recognizable.
  • Elaboration – related to curiosity is the desire and ability to extend an insight, story or discovery -- to consider repercussions, to push an argument to its extremes, to “unpack” statements and observations.
  • Complexity – ability to identify and recognize non-obvious problems; question assumptions; see multiple paths of causation; consider multiple variables; formulate numerous hypotheses; recognize missing elements; tolerate ambiguity.
  • Synthesis and combination– ability to bring together disparate bits of information and facts in order to tell a coherent story or provide a logical argument; “connecting the dots;” applying knowledge and techniques from one discipline to solve or consider problems in another discipline (x-disciplinary thinking); utilizing knowledge in a different or new context.
  • Abstraction and simplification – the ability to formulate general concepts by abstracting common properties of specific instances; the ability to pose overarching “theories,” and the capacity to see the “big picture” – identify fundamentals, first principles, general structures.
  • Tolerance for ambiguity – the ability to perceive value in the highly complex or asymmetrical.
  • Divergent Thinking – the ability to go against the grain of the usual or expected.
  • Fluency – the ability to extend an idea.
  • Flexibility – the ability to cross conceptual boundaries.
  • Concentration– the ability to disregard peripheral material and concepts in order to focus on the task or problem at hand.
  • Persistence – the ability to pursue a solution to a problem, etc. even when faced with difficulties, roadblocks, negative feedback, and other forms of resistance.
  • Entrepreneurship – the ability to go outside the approved or recognized conceptual boundaries of a situation or context in order to solve a problem, or pursue an idea.
  • Intrinsic motivation – the desire to do something based on the enjoyment of the behavior iteself rather then relying on or requiring external reinforcement.
  • Risk taking – the willingness to undertake a venture that may result in a loss or damage to oneself.
  • Projection/empathy – the indentification with and understanding of anothers feelings, situation, or motivations.
  • Originality – creating something new and useful to a discipline, domain, community.
  • Story telling – using spoken or written language in narrative form to make sense of something, to theorize about something, and/or communicate something to others.
  • Flow -- the automatic, effortless, yet highly focused state of consciousness when engaged in activities, often painful, risky or difficult, which stretch a person’s capacity while involving an element of novelty or discovery. Such activity can be based on the following nine elements: clear goals, immediate feedback, balance between challenges and skills, merging of action and awareness, elimination of distractions, lack of fear of failure, lack of self-consciousness, distortion of sense of time, autotelic activity (enjoyment for its own sake) (Csikszentmihalyi 1996).