One of the greatest challenges faced by creativity researchers is defining the nature of the sample to be studied. The use of the term “creativity” to refer to individuals who make creative contributions is relatively modern. Up until the early 20th century, such individuals were said to have “genius.” For example, the landmark study of Lewis Terman, who prospectively followed a group of highly gifted children over many decades, was called “Genetic Studies of Genius.”1
In this particular study “genius” was defined as having a high intelligence quotient (IQ) on the TQ tests that Terman had developed. Interestingly, as Terman and his group followed these high-IQ individuals into adulthood, they observed that they were generally more successful than average, but that very few actually made significant, creative contributions, thereby documenting that having a high IQ is a different mental trait, than being creative. Other early studies by Lombroso, Ellis, and Galton also used the term “genius.”2-4
In these works genius was seen as roughly equivalent to being eminent, in a variety of fields. Ellis, for example, chose to study people whose lives were described in the British Dictionary of National Biography
and who had entries longer than three pages. This of course provided him with a very mixed group of people, ranging from politicians to industrialists to artists and scientists, not all of whom would be considered to be creative in current usage.
These early efforts suggest that a better definition of the term “creativity” may be the key to identifying an appropriate sample to study Many different, perspectives have been offered on defining creativity by authors such as Howard Gardner or Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Gardner argues persuasively that there multiple types of creativity, which he refers to as “multiple intelligences.”5
A key component, of Gardner's approach is that he disagrees with the common stereotype that makes creativity equivalent to pursuing work in the arts, and ignores the fact that people in fields such as engineering or biology also may be highly creative. Csikszentmihalyi stresses the importance of making original contributions and of being recognized for these contributions by one's peers.6
Although there are some differences between those cur rently pursuing research on creativity, a definition that most, would embrace is one that emphasizes that creativity is the ability to produce something that is novel and also useful or beautiful in a very general sense.7
Some would also emphasize the importance of having achieved some kind of public recognition for this work, such as a Pulitzer Prize, a listing in Who's Who in Art,
or a Fields Medal. However, this is a relatively stringent criterion.
Given this definition of creativity, how then should an investigator identify a sample to study? One approach is to select a very homogeneous group of creative people, such as a group of writers, or musicians, or mathematicians. This is perhaps the most common. Another approach is to sample more broadly and to study a mixture of creative individuals from multiple disciplines. The most difficult aspect, of this type of research is identifying and recruiting the subjects, since creative people tend to be relatively busy.
An alternative approach is to identify a group of people for whom written histories are available and to use this information as the basis for study. Examples of this type of approach are the studies of Ellis, Juda, Post, Ludwig, and Schildkraut.3, 8-11
Although using written historical biographical and autobiographical material provides a sample of convenience, an obvious problem is that the information may not be complete or accurate.
If the goal of a study is to examine the relationship between creativity and psychopathology, then several other challenges must, also be met. One is to use a standard and widely accepted set of definitions of mental illness, and to assess its presence or absence using a structured interview of some type. Although this seems obvious in the early 21st century, most of the extant literature on creativity and mental illness has not used this approach. It is nearly impossible to map the diagnoses of early investigators, such as Adele Juda, into modern nomenclature, and therefore to interpret the results. A second challenge is to identify an appropriate comparison or control group, in order to determine whether rates of any given illness in the creative people are different from rates in a “normal” comparison group. Selecting the comparison group is also a challenge. Should one select a profession not notable for nurturing creativity, such as lawyers? Should one select a varied group of people not known to be creative, who are equivalent in age, gender, and educational level to the creative group? There is no easy answer, but the latter alternative is probably preferable, since it “averages out.” whatever bias might exist if a single field or profession were chosen.