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Are Creative People Smarter?

New research has helped clarify decades of conflicting data on creativity and intelligence.

A persistent question in creativity research relates to distinguishing creative thinking from generalized cognitive ability. In other words, how is being creative different from being smart, if it’s different at all?

Early evidence that creativity was its own special flavor of mental ability was illustrated by the triangular shape of correlations between general intelligence and divergent thinking (a specific creative skill). At low or average levels of mental ability, intelligence is highly correlated with creative ability; most people’s ability to complete creative thinking tasks corresponds with how smart they are. But among individuals with high mental ability, there is a very weak correlation with creativity.

The idea that there’s a certain point at which intelligence stops predicting creativity ability is known as Threshold Theory. According to the theory, really smart people may or may not be creative, but it’s difficult for people of low ability to produce creative ideas. Above a threshold (around 120 IQ points), factors other than intelligence will determine a person’s creative success.

Put another way, intelligence is a necessary but insufficient condition for creative thinking. Now, recent research has shed light on how another condition, the personality trait of openness, interacts with intelligence to facilitate creative performance.

As we shared in a previous article, openness is closely related to creative performance. All other things being equal, openness is the most important personality trait associated with creativity. But, of course, it’s complicated. Certain kinds of work, especially work that is unstructured, enables highly open people to be more creative than less open people. In other work contexts, traits like conscientiousness can more strongly predict success.

Openness also facilitates the connection between intelligence and creative performance. Being naturally curious and interested in new ideas, highly open people are more likely to apply their mental abilities towards solving problems creatively. In contrast, a very intelligent but close-minded person will be comfortable applying familiar problem-solving techniques even when faced with unfamiliar problems.

The relationships between openness, intelligence, and creative achievement differ across domains as well. People with high aesthetic openness – meaning they engage with art, beauty, and feelings – will take greater advantage of their cognitive gifts than less aesthetically open people when working in the arts. On the other hand, intellectual openness – the degree to which someone appreciates vigorous debate and abstract reasoning – determines how strongly intelligence and creative achievements are related in the sciences. People who are intelligent and interested in thinking about intellectual topics will perform better in scientific work when compared to people who are highly intelligent but close-minded.

The results of this research have important implications for how we think about and assess for creative potential. Intelligence and personality are very stable individual differences – there’s not much we can do to change who we are. Nonetheless, on their own, these same characteristics won’t tell us whether someone is the right fit for a role. Instead, consider:

  • Openness matters the most for creative achievement among higher levels of intelligence; it’s less related to creativity when intelligence is low or average.

  • The domain of creative performance makes a difference; openness in the arts, in the sciences, and in any other domain comes with important nuances.

  • Similarly, domain knowledge, expertise, and deliberate practice influence a person’s creative potential.

  • Individual characteristics only describe what a person can do, not necessarily what they will do; motivation, management style, and organizational culture all shape a person’s creative success.


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