At Creativity’s Heart: Balancing Chaotic and Ordered Thinking

For some people creativity and chaotic thinking naturally go hand-in-hand, but for others it doesn’t.

This post is my second contribution to a blogging conversation on creativity with isabella of change therapy. In her most recent post she raises the subject of chaos in creativity.

For some people creativity and chaotic thinking naturally go hand-in-hand, but for others it doesn’t. Finke and Bettle (1996) pick up on this continuum between two types of creative thinkers:

  • Chaotic thinkers: reactive, spontaneous, playful, metaphorical.
  • Ordered thinkers: proactive, organised, literal and serious.

Unfortunately for the ordered thinkers amongst us this makes the chaotic thinkers sound much more exciting. But how enthusiastic we are about each style of thinking depends on the type of problem we need to solve, and how far we’ve already got in solving it. Also, while we might have a tendency to hang out at one point on the chaos/order creativity spectrum, we can adopt different approaches depending on our goal.

Chaotic thinking

Still, there’s an indication of the power of chaotic thinking in a study by Finke (1990). Here participants were shown a set of 15 basic components such as a tube, a bracket, a cross and a hook. They were then asked to combine the components they’d been given to make a practical device of some kind. The categories of device they were asked to construct included things like furniture and utensils.

To investigate how people were able to use these components, three experimental conditions were used:

  1. The category of device they had to construct was random, but they could use any three components of their choice.
  2. They had random components but were assigned a category of device.
  3. Both the components and the category of device were assigned at random.

People were most creative when they were given both random components and a random category of device to create.Fascinatingly, people were judged most creative in the last condition, when they were given both random components and a random category of device to create. Finke (1990) suggests that the randomness of both selections forced people to make more creative leaps. What this study shows is that the challenge of the random selection of components and device category – the chaotic element in the experiment – was an aid to creativity.

A further study even challenged the old adage – arguably more ordered than chaotic in nature – that form should follow function. In this experiment, similar to the first, participants in one condition were given components and told to combine them in any way they liked. Only after they’d created their shape, or form, were they asked to dream up its function. The people in this condition were judged more creative than those in other conditions where the components and device’s function had been given to them at the outset.

Function following form – pretty chaotic!

Finding balance

I’ve focussed on chaotic thinking so far but structured, ordered thinking is clearly vital to creativity. Ideas without structure are simply lost in the storm. It’s a balance, as Finke and Bettle (1996) explain:

“Both structural connectedness and imaginative divergence are essential to creative realism. Ideas that display structural connectedness but lack imaginative divergence tend to be realistic but not sufficiently enlightening. Ideas that display imaginative divergence but lack structural connectedness tend to be creative but are often excessively fanciful. When both of these qualities are combined, new ideas make contact with previous ideas, but they also stimulate further explorations and insightful discoveries.” (p.391)

The process of creativity

This is why Finke and colleagues have put together what they call the ‘Geneplore’ model of creativity. They argue that there are two distinctive phases to creative activities: the first involves GENErating the ideas, the second ExPLORing these ideas to create structures and draw connections. Creativity, then, is the process of switching between the generative and explorative phases while applying the constraints set by the task being attempted.

Perhaps, then, a creative block might be getting stuck in one or other of these phases, finding oneself with either too much chaos or too much order.

Over to you…

What do you think isabella, and everyone else?

[Image credit: beat]


Finke, R. A. (1990). Creative imagery: discoveries and inventions in visualization. Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc Inc.

Finke, R. A., & Bettle, J. (1996). Chaotic cognition: Principles and applications. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

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This site is all about scientific research into how the mind works.

It’s mostly written by psychologist and author, Dr Jeremy Dean.

I try to dig up fascinating studies that tell us something about what it means to be human.

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Author: Jeremy Dean

Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology. He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book "Making Habits, Breaking Habits" (Da Capo, 2013) and several ebooks.