Why do creative people often behave so differently than other people?

For decades, researchers have been trying to find out what makes up the personality profile of creative, innovative people.

And whatever stereotype you have of what a creative person should look or behave like, we do now have some scientific evidence of how they think.

However, in order to be able to identify the personality of creative people, researchers needed to agree on a way to study personality at all.

You might have heard or several types of personality tests and classification systems before. But not all personality testing systems are equally respected amongst the scientific community. After all, nobody would take the results of an online personality quiz which tells you “which Harry Potter character you are”.

Yet, there are other personality testing systems which have equally little evidence behind them and yet millions of people across the world take their results too seriously. The worst example of this is probably the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) assessment, which has been debunked by the scientific community (1996, 1997, 2005).

Nonetheless, there is one system of personality testing which is widely accepted by the psychology science community. It assesses and scores people’s preferences for certain types of situations, feelings and actions across five main traits, commonly referred to as the “Big Five” traits:

The „Big Five“ Personality Traits

The five traits are:

  • Openness to Experience: how you react to new information, ideas and new experiences
  • Conscientiousness: how you feel about completing goals and focus
  • Extraversion: to what degree external stimulation gives you positive energy
  • Agreeableness: how you feel and act in a group
  • Neuroticism: how you experience and process negative emotions

Based on the first letter from each of the five traits, it is often also referred to as the O.C.E.A.N. model, or sometimes in the scientific literature is referred to as the Five-Factor Model (FFM).

To measure an individual’s personality profile, they would go through a survey asking how much they agree or disagree with their own preferences towards a listed statement, such as “I always complete things I start” or “I find it challenging feeling empathy for others”. The results of the survey will show how high or low a person is against each of the five traits on a spectrum. There is no right or wrong answer, and landing on any part of the spectrum is valid. After all, I am sure you know some people who are higher in extraversion than others.

If you are interested to see your own personality profile, there are many free tests online.

The Big Five personality traits have been validated as standing up to scientific scrutiny, and are widely accepted as researchers. As a result, they have formed the basis of many recent studies trying to find a link between personality and creative performance.

Some individual tests have shown a positive correlation between certain traits like Extraversion and Creativity, and a negative correlation between Neuroticism as well as Conscientiousness and creative performance.

Amongst all of the five criteria, there is nonetheless only one which is significantly positively correlated with creative performance, such as those measured on divergent thinking tests:

Openness to Experience

Yes, out of all of the five traits, only Openness to Experience seems to be directly linked to creativity.

The strong link has been found in multiple research studies (1978, 1987, 2006, 2009).

Indeed, a 1998 meta-analysis of over 83 other research studies found the strongest positive correlations to creativity being with Openness to Experience, and the strongest negative correlations to Neuroticism and Conscientiousness.

The study also looked at a series of more subtle personality characteristics, and concluded that:

…Creative people are more autonomous, introverted, open to new experiences, norm-doubting, self-confident, self-accepting, driven, ambitious, dominant, hostile and impulsive.

When you look at what Openness to Experience actually measures, it quickly becomes apparent why this should be the personality trait most closely associated with creativity.

Openness involves six facets, or dimensions:

  1. active imagination (fantasy)
  2. aesthetic sensitivity (appreciating arts)
  3. attentiveness to inner feelings
  4. preference for variety (adventurousness)
  5. intellectual curiosity
  6. challenging authority (psychological liberalism)

People who are highly open to new experiences are also more likely to be intrinsically motivated., which has been shown to be a powerful predictor of people actually engaging in a creative activity.

This would explain why so many activities which get people out of their routines and gaining new knowledge have been shown to directly improve their creativity as well, whether it be travel, unexpected events or gaining new knowledge.

So if you want to become more creative, doing activities which push you into new experiences or make you gain new knowledge can likely help.

It is important to understand though that while there might be a positive correlation between Openness to Experience and creativity, it is obviously not the only factor affecting creative performance. A 2006 review of the literature found that other factors such as intelligence and knowledge of the domain are also important and strongly correlated with creative performance.

The creative personality

So while we know that Openness to Experience is important, it cannot be the only personality trait which creative people usually have.

In Mark Runco’s outline on the latest creativity research, he summarised the following personality traits which highly creative people seem to prefer:

  • Autonomy
  • Flexibility
  • Preference for complexity
  • Openness to experience
  • Sensitivity
  • Playfulness
  • Tolerance for ambiguity
  • Risk taking and risk tolerance
  • Intrinsic motivation
  • Psychological androgyny
  • Self efficacy
  • Wide interests and curiosity

What are your thoughts on this list? Do you think anything is missing? Let me know your reply.

But until then, go out into the world and try to experience something new.

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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.