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More Constraints, More Creativity

One of the basic concepts about the creative process is that it involves generation of many ideas, followed by analytic selection, then implementation.

Idea generation may be very “loose” and unrestrained – even fantastical and not necessarily tied to normal reality.

In my earlier post Creative Thinking and Schizophrenia, I wrote a little about the link between schizotypy and creative achievement, and included a quote by Susan K. Perry from her book Writing in Flow that “looseness and the ability to cross mental boundaries are aspects of both schizophrenic thinking and creative thinking.”

A study by psychologist Daniel Nettle and colleagues found that artists and schizophrenics scored equally high on “unusual cognition.”

But in contrast to “looseness,” the constraint of ideas and work can enhance creativity.

A number of filmmakers, for example, talk about the challenges of a lack of production money, but also the potential creative value.

In our interview for a magazine article about making Anaconda (1997), actor Kari Wuhrer said she really enjoyed making smaller independent movies, with their budget constraints. “It’s one thing doing something with a huge budget, and you’ve got incredibly talented people behind the scenes, in post-production, and directors – it’s really great. But these little movies, these little guerrilla films that I do, I really really love because it gives me a hand in the entire creative process.”

In his new article How Constraints Force Us to Be More Creative, Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D. notes that creativity “involves variability — different ways of doing things” but also “involves constraints, which can either promote or preclude creativity.”

He mentions Patricia Stokes’s book “Creativity from Constraints: The Psychology of Breakthrough” and says Stokes “makes it clear that constraints play a role in many different creative domains, and in many of the most revolutionary creative products of our time.”

He continues, “In many domains, there are issues that have not yet been resolved, questions that have not yet been posed, and problems that have no obvious solution. These ‘ill-structured’ problems require a creative approach. Paradoxically, when people are given free reign to solve a problem, they tend to be wholly uncreative, focusing on what’s worked best in the past. This is due to the fundamental nature of human cognition: to imagine the future we generate what we already know from the past. According to Stokes, such freedom can hinder creativity, whereas the strategic use of constraints can promote creativity. By using constraints, reliable responses are precluded and novel surprising ones are encouraged.”

An example of this may be found in the World Trade Center Site Memorial twin fountains, called “Reflecting Absence,” designed by architect Michael Arad and landscape architect Peter Walker.

In her article Arad ’91 designs Sept. 11 memorial (The Dartmouth, August 23, 2011), Eliza Relman says that “material and emotional” constraints altered Arad’s original ideas, but that “some of these issues changed his design for the better, he said. Arad explained that he received a request from the city mayor’s office concerning the ability of those with disabilities — particularly those confined to wheelchairs — to see the bottom of the reflecting pools.

“In order to alleviate this problem, Arad transformed the 90-degree edges of the pools to 45-degree angles, allowing visitors to observe the pools more easily. Consequently, this structural change allowed the lines of victims’ names to circle the pools in a fluid pattern, rather than end at the corners. “Unexpected constraints that had the potential to diminish the design actually made it stronger, better and more meaningful,” Arad said.

[The image is from the article Reflecting Absence: Exploring The 9/11 Memorial by Steve Rosenbaum.]

Inner constraint

This idea of constraint usually refers to external or structural parameters, but another kind is self-restraint of our creative work.

In her Psych Central post One of the Biggest Barriers to Creativity and How to Overcome It, Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. quotes Patti Digh (author of the book Creative Is a Verb: If You’re Alive, You’re Creative): “The only real way to be creative is to create. Without attachment to outcome.”

Digh relates a story of a young actor performing a one-man play in New York City, who “wasn’t getting what he expected from the audience,” so he began “adjusting his performance to meet them, to cajole them into responding, rather than following the spine of his own story, his own art.”

Tartakovsky comments, “In a few words: He sucked. But it was a big learning opportunity. For the next performance, he ended up sticking to his process without paying attention to the audience and received rave reviews.”

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More Constraints, More Creativity

Douglas Eby

Douglas EbyDouglas Eby, MA/Psychology, is a writer and researcher on psychology and personal development related to creativity; creator of the , and author of books including [link to book site with excerpts.]
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APA Reference
Eby, D. (2019). More Constraints, More Creativity. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 22, 2020, from


Last updated: 26 Mar 2019
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