What is the link between intelligence and creativity?

And can you be creative without being intelligent, or do you need a minimum level of intelligence to achieve great creative feats?

This has been a question posed since creativity research began seriously in the 1950s.

And it has a long, controversial history.

Throughout history, many people who were regarded as highly creative, the people who made a mark on their fields, especially the scientific disciplines, were also highly intelligent. Often, they were classified as geniuses.

But do you need to be a genius in today’s world in order to be creative?

This is what the Threshold Theory of Creativity seeks to predict.

It suggests that up to a certain level of intelligence, you need that intelligence to achieve creative things. But once you have reached that important IQ threshold, additional intelligence becomes less important, or even a hindrance for doing creative work.

Threshold theory predicts that there is a weaker relationship between creativity and intelligence for an IQ above 120 than for an IQ below 120.

This is based on initial predictions made all the way back in 1967 by JP Guilford when looking at his Structure of Intellect model.

This IQ level of 120 was apparently seen in experiments at the time, yet has been highly controversial. As a result, numerous scientists have conducted experiments to see whether the threshold theory is true, and what the link between intelligence and creativity is.

Various tests of the threshold theory and their results:

  • Hollingworth (1942): Gifted children with IQ of 180 (top 99.99999% percentile) have difficulty being original. They become anxious if there is no one correct answer to a task. Supports threshold theory
  • Guilford (1967): Suggested a link between creativity and intelligence up to a level of about 120, but weaker thereafter. Origin of threshold theory.
  • Barron & Harrington (1981): Suggests a link between minimum level of intelligence and creative achievement, but not conclusive. Inconclusive
  • Runco (1986): Tested 228 schoolchildren to find correlation between creativity and intelligence. Result: Low correlation between creative achievement and low intelligence, strong correlation with high intelligence. Does not support the threshold theory
  • Kim (2005): Meta analysis of 45,880 participants found relationship between creativity test scores and IQ scores is negligible. However, did find a slight negative correlation above an IQ of 135. Does not support threshold theory, although indicates there may be upper limits to IQ being beneficial to creativity
  • Preckel & Holling (2006): Investigation of correlation in 1328 German students. Does not support the threshold theory
  • Sternberg & O’Hara (2010): Assess the relationship between creativity and intelligence and whether they are aspects of the same mental activity sets. Result is that it is likely a combination of sets depending on the mental activity. Inconclusive
  • Jauk (2013): Sample of 297 participants found a positive correlation between intelligence and creativity, but there was a threshold point of an IQ of 86 for ideational fluency, and IQ of 119 to be highly original. After those levels, the correlation was still positive but negligible. Supports threshold theory
  • Benedek (2014): Found a positive correlation between intelligence and creativity, but no threshold effect. Does not support threshold theory

Results of the experiments and Discussion

So, based on all of the available data above we have, is there really a threshold required for someone to be creative?

No.

Every one of us is creative. We just have different potential ranges of creative achievement, and these will vary between different fields (like mathematics, music, visual arts, storytelling or business).

People can have wildly different potential in different fields based on factors beyond just the intelligence measured by an IQ test. One person may score highly on an IQ test and have a propensity for mathematics and physics, so could be creative as a scientist. But the same person may have very low intelligence and potential when it comes to music, visual arts or business. Their potential range for creative achievement will be high in some fields but much lower in others.

Similarly, there may be someone who does not score highly on an IQ test because it does not measure the aspects of their intelligence where they are strongest, and this person may still find a field or niche where they can deliver highly creative, original and professional work.

Moreover, you do not need to be gifted or a genius in order to be creative. According to the 4C model of creativity, everyone has the capacity to be creative in their everyday lives, no matter what they do professionally.

All the the experiments showed that there was a slight correlation between intelligence and creativity. However, the correlation between rising intelligence and creativity was in most cases only weakly positive. Therefore, there must be other factors at play which improve creativity more than intelligence.

The more intelligent you are, the higher your creative potential is likely to be. While a few experiments showed that after a certain IQ level, creative performance does not rise as quickly anymore, there was little evidence to suggest that it actively fell above an IQ level of 120.

But this is just potential. Most of the experiments relied on measures of creativity like divergent thinking tests, which output how easily a person can come up with ideas.

It says nothing about what that person then does with the ideas.

After all, we know that just having ideas is not enough. You need to execute on those ideas in order to create something and be creative.

And that is where other aspects like hard work, deliberate practice and grit come in.

We have all heard stories of people with innate talent, but who never achieved much in their life because they did not put in the effort to actually produce creative things. Talent will only get you so far.

The most creative people are the ones that create.

It might come more easily to some people compared to others, but at the end of the day, it is about producing something for the world to experience.

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Did you know that scientific evidence shows your creativity decreases over time
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Creativity & Innovation expert: I help individuals and companies build their creativity and innovation capabilities, so you can develop the next breakthrough idea which customers love. Chief Editor of Ideatovalue.com and Founder / CEO of Improvides Innovation Consulting. Coach / Speaker / Author / TEDx Speaker / Voted as one of the most influential innovation bloggers.