How Creativity Is Linked to Intelligence


By Catherine A. SandersonAmherst College

Let’s describe the link between intelligence and creativity. We often assume that people who are highly creative must also be highly intelligent. However, people who are especially creative don’t just accumulate knowledge; they also think outside of the box and create new concepts and ideas. So, what does the research say about the intelligence-creativity link?

Concept of creativity and new ideas
Pure intelligence is not enough to be creative. (Image: Beanimages/Shutterstock)

Creativity Needs More Than Mere Intelligence

According to the threshold hypothesis developed in the 1960s, high creativity requires at least above-average intelligence. So, above-average intelligence is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for high creativity. But, people who are more intelligent do tend to be more creative.

But this association isn’t true for people at the extremes of either variable; people who are the very most creative are not necessarily the most intelligent. In other words, there’s more to creativity than just intelligence. Instead, creativity comes from a set of resources, including internal factors within ourselves and external factors from the environment we’re in.

First, there’s expertise, meaning a well-developed base of knowledge. As Louis Pasteur once said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” The more ideas, images, and phrases we learn to work with, through accumulated learning, the more chances we have to combine these building blocks in novel ways.

Young woman working in design studio using laptop
Expertise and imaginative thinking skills are needed for a person to become creative. (Image: G-Stock Studio/Shutterstock)

Second, there’s imaginative thinking skills, which let people see things in new ways, to recognize patterns, and to make connections. Copernicus first developed expertise regarding the solar system and its planets; only much later did he offer his revolutionary idea that the Earth revolved around the Sun, instead of the reverse.

Features of Creativity 

Creative people also share distinct personality traits. They are able to tolerate ambiguity, seek out new experiences, and persist even in the face of obstacles. Thomas Edison tried countless substances, and failed repeatedly, in the process of creating his lightbulb filament. But Edison framed these disappointments in a very positive perspective: 

When a reporter asked him, “How did it feel to fail 1,000 times?” Edison replied, “I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.” Creative people are also driven by internal motivation; by interest, enjoyment, and satisfaction, not just external rewards and pressures, such as deadlines, money, and impressing people.

Another factor linked with creativity is experience in particular environments that spark, support, and refine particular ideas. Most prominent scientists, inventors, and artists are mentored, supported, and challenged by relationships with colleagues.

This article comes directly from content in the video series Introduction to PsychologyWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Creativity Peaks Differ for Different People

Finally, and perhaps most interesting, is research on life cycle effects and creativity, suggesting that creativity peaks at different points for different people and for different fields of endeavor. It’s often commonly assumed that creativity peaks at a relatively young age, but a 2019 paper found evidence for two distinct life cycles of creativity, at least for creativity as assessed by winning a Nobel Prize in economics.

The researchers first classified 31 Nobel Prize winners in terms of the type of work they produced, as more conceptual, meaning using a more mathematical approach; or more experimental, meaning relying on specific places, time periods, or industries in their work. They then determined the age at which these economists had produced their most important work, as assessed by how often that piece was mentioned as influential by other economists.

And their results revealed evidence for two distinct types of peaks for economists with different approaches. Conceptual economists did tend to peak relatively early in their careers; their most influential paper was typically published when they were in their mid-to-late- the 20s. But experimental economists showed a very different pattern, with a peak in their mid-50s.

How Age Can Affect Creativity

How do we make sense of this patterning? Well, conceptual thinkers are really good at thinking outside the box, so youth may be an advantage. They are less immersed in whatever the accepted theories within a field are and more comfortable with proposing new approaches. But experimental economists need time to design, analyze, and interpret information which requires more trial and error. 

Statue of Socrates against a semi-cloudy sky
Conceptual thinkers tend to be creative in their youth, while experimental thinkers tend to be creative in their older age. (Image: Dimitrios P/Shutterstock)

Other work by these same researchers reveals similar differences in types and peaks of creativity for other domains, including for artists, writers, and scientists. For example, conceptual thinkers, who have specific goals for what they hope to communicate, tend to produce their best work at a relatively young age. Albert Einstein and Andy Warhol are great examples. 

But experimental thinkers can take longer to develop and produce their ideas, so creativity tends to peak at a later age. Charles Darwin, Paul Cezanne, and Virginia Woolf show this pattern of producing their best work later in life.

These findings from the field of economics dovetail nicely with how psychologists now think about intelligence and creativity as something that isn’t fixed, but rather evolves over time and predicts success in different ways for different people.

Common Questions about How Creativity Is Linked to Intelligence

Q: What is the link between intelligence and creativity?

As the threshold hypothesis remarks, highly creative people have at least above-average intelligence. But this hypothesis is not true for those who are at the extreme in either creativity or intelligence. In other words, the most creative people are not necessarily intelligent and vice versa.

Q: Except for intelligence, what other things do people need to become creative?

People need more than just intelligence. Creative people get their power from different sets of resources such as expertise and imaginative thinking skills. The internal and external factors are also important for people to become creative.

Q: Are intelligence and creativity fixed things?

Observing the successes of scholars and scientists such as Edison, Einstein, Warhol, Cezanne, Woolf, Darwin, and many others, it can be concluded that either intelligence or creativity are not fixed things but change and evolve throughout people’s lives, being associated in different ways for different people.

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