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Is Creativity Domain Specific?


This is a guest post by Karl K. Jeffries, a Senior Lecturer in Design at the University of Central Lancashire. He is Course Leader for the University’s MA in Creative Thinking.

A preoccupation within creativity research has been frequent discussion on the influence a domain has on creativity. Domain, for the purpose of this article, we could describe as an occupation, such as working as a games designer or graphic artist.

While this type of enquiry could appear purely academic, the implications have the potential to be significant for creativity training more broadly. If creativity is notably influenced by domain, this might further explain why some training programmes are more effective than others. The point to take here is that some creativity training is more effective than others at enhancing creativity, and more importantly for this article, one of the findings of Scott et al’s study was that a characteristic of effective training was the opportunity offered by “a series of exercises… appropriate to the domain at hand, intended to provide people with practice in applying relevant strategies and heuristics in a more complex, and more realistic context.”

As a result, much is at stake in this debate, especially if you are involved with creativity training, either as a participant or a training provider. Given this, the discussion is not without controversy.

Two schools of thought

At the extremes, two schools of thought have evolved regarding the extent to which scholars consider creativity to be either domain specific or domain general. These two deceptively simple terms have for years polarised the world of creativity research, and still do so.


Domain general creativity theorists suggest that the major attributes required to be creative in one domain can be equally useful within other domains. For example, divergent thinking (the ability to generate a large number of ideas) has frequently been equated with creativity, and as domain transcending, a prerequisite for creativity regardless of domain. Whether in the sciences or the arts, divergent thinking tests form a significant predictor of creative potential. Arguably, many creativity training programmes have been underpinned by domain generality.

In contrast, advocates of domain specificity propose that creativity is fundamentally influenced by the domain in which it occurs. Creative capability in one domain does not assure creativity in another.

While motivation, for example, may appear a general requirement for creativity, an individual’s motivation to write a short story need not follow the same cognitive process required to write a mathematic equation; they are likely to be different directly because of the variation in domain, and this difference may matter when it comes to enhancing and teaching creativity. At the extremes of domain specificity, certain researchers advocate creativity training to be highly specific (tailored to writing a poem, rather than creative writing per se).

Several creativity theories have attempted to bridge this polarity by hypothesising that both domain general and domain specific are important, but such models are also seen as compromises that, with the best intentions, are attempting to sidestep the core debate: is creativity domain specific? Nor is the interaction between the domain general and domain specific fully understood to suggest which form of hybrid model to pursue: mostly domain specific; 50/50 domain specific/domain general; mostly domain general. What is accepted is that further research into this debate is required.

Getting off the fence

As a University Lecturer I see the debate over the domain specificity versus domain generality of creativity also mirrors a dichotomy seen in tensions between the needs of academia and the needs of industry; between those who advocate the need for graduates with more domain specific “skills” versus those who highlight the importance of a broader set of domain general “conceptual abilities” and knowledge.

Yet, as discussed previously, it is unclear whether taking a domain specific, domain general, or hybrid approach is most useful. Indeed, the acquisition of domain specific “skills” may well be the best mechanism to enhance creativity. Equally, focusing on domain general “conceptual abilities” could be more fruitful. Or, a combination, a merge of either may be the better direction to explore. From a theoretical and an empirical perspective, organisations and individuals do not really know, even when strong opinions and convictions are expressed on either side of this debate.

However, hearing this is not terribly useful if you are about to invest your time and money in some form of creativity training. Here is my advice: think about how you are prepared to get this wrong. If you choose to attend creativity training that is general, and it turns out that creativity is domain specific, then that is one way to get it wrong; the other is to attend domain specific creativity training only to find out later that creativity was domain general after all.

Some creativity researchers argue that domain specific training would be the better “wrong” choice to have taken, and I am going to advise the same.  Broad creativity theory, principles and strategies are important, but more important is having the opportunity to apply them to the domain you are interested in being creative within.

So, the next time you find yourself on a creativity training course that talks big and broad, ask them how, specifically, you can apply this to your domain. If that freaks them out… it’s time to leave, and ask for your money back!

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