Creativity: Associated Personality Traits and Potential Link to Psychopathology

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Written by Brett Weiss

June, 2019

            Creativity facilitates innovation; and innovation breeds original and useful ideas, musical compositions, works of art, medicines, procedures, publications, and products.  In order to consider something creative, the piece of work must have novelty and utility (Kaufman and Paul, 2014).  Bronowski (1972) defined creativity as “the ability to find unity in what appears to be diversity” (Heilman, 2016).  Bronowski’s definition entails unifying multiple ideas, thoughts, or percepts which may seem unrelated at first glance.  One may also wonder what personality attributes or potential psychopathology contribute to the creative process.  The following will review conceptions of the creative process, personality traits associated with creativity, and an exploration of the possible link between creativity and psychopathology.

            In order to engage in creativity to make something original, one must proceed through stages of creativity.  The canonical stages of creativity include preparation, incubation, illumination, and production (Heilman, 2016).  The preparation stage involves acquiring knowledge and skills in a particular field of study.  Once preparation takes place, incubation requires that the person nonconsciously tries to find answers along with finding unity (Heilman, 2016).  Illumination occurs when the person discovers the answer and finds unity– the solution ‘pops’ into conscious awareness so to speak.  The last step, production, allows for the verification of the idea through generation of the creative product.

            The personality traits required to engage in the canonical stages of the creative process include some intelligence and ability to think divergently, a practice whereby one breaks away from commonly accepted theories, ideas, and beliefs.  As for intelligence, historically, children have taken tests developed to predict whether the child would achieve creative accomplishments.  In 1959, Terman and Oden worked with children considered “geniuses” who had scored 135 or higher on a Stanford-Binet intelligence test in northern California.  The scientists followed the children through their careers and found that few of the “geniuses” made great creative achievements.  At the same time, children tested in the study not classified as geniuses due to lower IQ scores included William Shockley, who went on to win the Nobel Prize in physics for his invention of the transistor.  Another Nobel Prize winner in physics not included in Terman’s group due to lower IQ was Luis Walter Alvarez who contributed to developing the radar in World War II, worked on the Manhattan Project, and designed a liquid hydrogen bubble chamber for measuring particle interactions.  Subsequently, studies of “geniuses” as measured through the Stanford-Binet IQ test only show weak relationships between creativity and IQ.  Hence, there may be a threshold for intelligence required for creativity; however, once this threshold is met, the test does not predict creativity well (Heilman, 2016).  One reason for this observation could be that IQ tests assess correct answers (word definitions) and convergent thinking (finding similarities).  During creativity, processes of disengagement and divergent thinking, processes not measured in IQ tests, have high importance.  An example of divergent thinking might be finding new ways of using an everyday object, whereas intelligence as measured through IQ tests only requires that one knows the typical usage for the object.

            In order to explain what makes one creative, Carson (2011) surmised the ‘Shared Vulnerability Model’ of creativity.  In essence, creative people have decreased latent inhibition, which allows more stimuli to enter conscious awareness.  The concept of ‘latent inhibition’ comes from classical conditioning whereby a familiar stimulus has less of an effect on conscious experience than a new stimulus.  Hence, people with decreased latent inhibition often experience familiar stimuli as new and may experience difficulty in ‘filtering’ irrelevant material from conscious awareness.  Another aspect of the ‘Shared Vulnerability Model’ of creativity is preference for novelty.  Highly creative thinkers continuously seek novelty to feed their insatiable curiosity.  Such people have great joy and excitement when they experience an “A-ha” or “Eureka” moment of discovery.  For example, the great composer Tchaikovsky once said, “…It would be vain to put into words that immeasurable sense of bliss which comes over me…(when) a new idea awakens in me…(Heilman, 2016).”  The last aspect of creative thinkers in this model is ‘hyperconnectivity,’ whereby neurologically speaking, creative people tend to have greater connectivity and integration across neural networks.  Hence, the three aspects of shared vulnerability, decreased latent inhibition, preference for novelty, and neural hyperconnectivity, can be offset with protective factors such as high IQ, strong working memory skills, and strong cognitive flexibility (the skill of switching attention from one task to another quickly).  With strong protective factors along with shared vulnerability factors, creativity results.  On the other hand, given shared vulnerability factors with low IQ and working memory deficits, psychopathology may result.  Possible psychopathological states associated with the ‘Shared Vulnerability Model’ of creativity include alcoholism, mood disorders such as bipolar disorder, psychosis proneness, and schizotypy (Carson, 2011).  In fact, Abraham (2014) postulated an ‘inverted-U’ model relating psychopathological dysfunction to degree of originality in thinking.  For example, degrees of originality in thought may increase as thought becomes defocused; however, an impairment in original thinking compared to neurotypicals could occur once the person experiences florid psychopathology (Abraham, 2014). 

            Creativity involves original thoughts for new ideas and finished products.  In order to engage in the four stages of the creative process, one must have a certain degree of attenuated latent inhibition along with protective factors which include high IQ.  As stated with the ‘Shared Vulnerability Model’ of creativity, without these protective factors, psychopathology may result.


Abraham A (2014).  “Is there an inverted-U relationship between creativity and psychopathtology?”  Front Pyschol.  5:750.

Bronowski J (1972).  Science and Human Values.  New York: Harper and Rowe.

Carson SH (2011).  “Creativity and Psychopathology: A Shared Vulnerability Model.”  Can J Psychiatry.  56(3): 144-153.

Heilman KM (2016).  “Possible Brain Mechanisms of Creativity.”  Arch Clin Neuropsychol.  31(4): 285-296.

Kaufman SB and Paul ES (2014).  “Creativity and schizophrenia spectrum disorders across the arts and sciences.”  Front Psychol.  5: 1145.

2 responses to “Creativity: Associated Personality Traits and Potential Link to Psychopathology”

  1. Psy.nteliopoulou, MSc Clinical Psychologist & Writer Avatar
    Psy.nteliopoulou, MSc Clinical Psychologist & Writer

    Congratulations for an insightful article!!!
    Thank you for sharing!

    1. hawkeye72177 Avatar

      Thank you for the complement and for reading the article! Best wishes!

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