Co-authored with Piers Worth, Ph.D., Bucks New University, London, UK.
This paper provides empirical findings from four different sources that lend credence to the deep-and-wide (DAW) hypothesis (Wong, 2012) in accounting for giftedness and creativity. The DAW hypothesis posits that difficult experiences and negative emotions motivate individuals to dig deeper into their inner resources and explore wider their external resources to find a creative solution to their distressing problems. To the extent that these endeavors are reinforced in these individuals’ early developmental stages, they will develop the predisposition of persistence, resourcefulness, and creativity. Therefore, there are two potential contributing factors resulting from negative experiences: a history of reinforcement of creative persistence and current difficult circumstances. The DAW hypothesis is supported by (1) experimental evidence, (2) biographical research on traumatic life experiences in early stages of development, (3) awareness of aging and death, and (4) struggling with psychopathology and suffering. Applications of the DAW hypothesis are discussed.
The study of giftedness began as a part of intelligence research (Guilford, 1956; Sternberg & O’Hara, 1999). Early research explored the links between intelligence and giftedness/creativity. However, most researchers have acknowledged that several factors need to converge for one’s creativity to be fully developed and recognized (Csikszentmihalyi & Getzels, 1988; Gardner, 1993; Sternberg & Lubart, 1999).
In this paper, we take for granted that individual differences in giftedness and creativity are a trait (e.g. Freeman, 1993) but contend that situational and emotional factors may also contribute to creativity. More specifically, we propose that negative experiences/emotions can contribute to the development of creativity, just as Fredrickson’s (2001) broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions as source of creativity.
This position is based on the assumption that given the right condition and opportunity, all people are capable of personal growth and becoming creative (Rogers, 1963). It is also consistent with the philosophy of experiential education (Kolb, 2015). According to Kolb (2015), when participants are thrust into new challenging situations during an outdoor adventure, their personal growth and creativity are fostered as they are forced to explore the new environment, test their assumptions, and develop new skills to resolve the problems in a new and creative way. Thus, all people have the potential to develop persistence and creativity, but they need to be nurtured and challenged by new demands from life.
The present hypothesis is also similar to learned resourcefulness (Rosenbaum, 1990) in coping with situations of difficulty or deprivation. It consists of a set of coping skills, such as remaining resolute, putting in persistent efforts, and exploring all possibilities; together, these skills will contribute to innovative solutions (Baldoni, 2010).
It is worth noting that most definitions of creativity assume the presence of a difficult problem or task at hand that requires an original solution, thus:
Feist (1999): “…novel and adaptive solutions to problems” (p. 274).
Martindale (1999): “A creative idea is one that is both original and appropriate for the situation in which it occurs” (p. 137).
Amabile (1996): “…it is both a novel and appropriate, useful, correct or valuable response to the task at hand” (p. 35).
Gardner (1993, pp. 313-14) and Policastro and Gardner (1999, pp. 220-21) have also included “solution of problems” as one of the areas for creative work.
Creativity is also involved in coping with the challenges and risks of living in a fast-changing modern world, as suggested by a number of authors (e.g., Craft, 2000; Henry, 1991).
The Deep-and-Wide Hypothesis
The deep-and-wide (DAW) hypothesis was first based on the truism that necessity is the mother of invention. For most of the early inventions, this was undoubtedly true, because inventions were created to provide the means for the survival of a growing population in the face of a wide range of “unpredictable and often life-threatening natural forces” (Byron, 1977, p. 22). For example, from the beginning of humankind, primitive people discovered the medicinal properties of plants to treat disease (Lyons & Petrucelli, 1997). Even in modern times, the need to control the feared disease Diabetes led to the discovery of insulin (Nobel Prize, 2009), and penicillin was discovered because of the urgent need to control infection (Tan & Tatsumura, 2015).
Thus, there is an abundance of evidence supporting the truism that the need to solve pressing problems for survival has been a major source of motivation for creativity and inventions. However, the present DAW hypothesis was also based on empirical research on the stage model of coping with frustrative stress (Amsel, 1992; Wong, 1979, 1995).
Formally, the DAW hypothesis consists of two parts. The first part proposes that prior reinforcement of persistent and creative problem solving endeavors contributes to the development of a predisposition or giftedness to engage in generalized persistent and creative problem solving behaviors. The second part proposes that current difficult situations challenge people to dig deeper into their inner and outer resources for a solution. It is the stretching of their capabilities and endurance that increases the likelihood of discovering a creative and successful solution.
The DAW hypothesis of negative emotions works best for overcoming inevitable obstacles and setbacks in long-term projects. The DAW hypothesis can also help when people are in dire need for a creative solution to personal, organizational, and societal problems that cause frustration, fear, and distress. In such cases, Wong’s (1995) stage model of frustration theory seems to work best.
Initially, the natural coping response is trying harder in doing the same thing (the invigoration phase); if repeating the same thing with greater vigor does not work, it will give way to trying new methods (the exploration phase). It is the prior reinforcement and the current manifestation of this exploration phase that increase the likelihood of a creative solution. Finally, if one has exhausted one’s resources, the third phase will kick in, which is either changing the goal (goal substitution) or giving up completely (helplessness).
The DAW hypothesis primarily rests on the frustration theory of goal persistence and response flexibility during the second exploration stage. This exploration stage differentiates creative and successful problem solvers from quitters. Given the same levels of competencies in terms of knowledge, skills, and intellectual capacity, those who possess the tenacity and persistence to dig deeper and venture further will be more successful.
Research on generalized persistence across situations (Amsel, 1992; Wong, 2006) and the empirical findings of state-dependent learning (Pearce et al., 1990) provide the mechanism of the first part of the DAW hypothesis. That is, the persistent habit acquired in past difficult situations will be triggered by future encounters with similar situations that evoke emotions of frustration, disappointment, or fear of failure.
Experimental Evidence of Generalized Persistence
For a detailed documentation of empirical evidence from animal research supporting generalized persistence and flexibility, please read Amsel (1992) and Wong (1995). Here are several illustrations. First, in a complex runway situation, partial reinforcement increased rats’ behavioral variability, such as sniffing and exploring holes on the wall and varying their routes leading to the goal-box (Wong, 1978). Reinforcement of such exploratory behaviors is the basis for later persistence, creativity (Wong, 2006) and greater likelihood of achieving dominance in a competitive situation (Wong, 1977a).
In another study, one group of young rats learned persistence by feeding from a difficult-to-access food hopper, while another group had the luxury of having a pile of food right inside their cages. When both groups were older and maintained a restricted food-intake, rats that have learned frustration tolerance later performed better in a variety of learning tasks, and showed greater persistence (Wong, 2006).
In concept learning experiments with children, Wong (1976) demonstrated that children assigned to the Strategy learning condition performed better than the Demonstration condition. In the former condition, children were encouraged and guided to explore alternative responses to discover the correct conceptual rule; in the latter condition, the experimenter simply demonstrated to the children when they made a mistake. Consistent with the DAW hypothesis, children who had to cope with frustration and discover the solution learned better.
Biographical Research on Past Experiences in Trauma and Adversities
There is biographical evidence that early lives of some exceptional and gifted individuals were characterized by stern parenting and traumatic experiences of frustrations and deprivation (Goertzel & Goertzel, 1962). Such difficult events may have prompted these individuals to dig deeper into their own inner resources and stretch their capabilities; difficult times growing up may have also strengthened their resistance (or immunized them) against future stress.
Eisenstadt (1978) and Csikszentmihalyi (1996) have both identified a disproportionate presence of bereavement experience in the lives of creative individuals in their samples. Eisenstadt’s findings reveal a loss of a parent at an early age for an acknowledged creative individual was two to three times more common than in the general population. In a group where exact information on parental death was available, 28% of these creative individuals lost a father by 10 years old, and 34% lost a mother. Csikszentmihalyi reports similar percentages in his study of living creative individuals.
For some, these difficult experiences will lead to compensatory energy being channeled into efforts of achievement and mastery; in an effort to stabilize an insecure and unclear environment, these individuals may put effort into a creative task. This struggle to cope with loss and to resolve tension and discontinuities provides opportunities for mastery of creative skills (Albert, 1996; Eisenstadt, 1978).
In addition to bereavement, eminent individuals also commonly experienced significant levels of illness in their early years. Within the biographic samples examined by Goertzel, Goertzel, and Goertzel (1978), approximately 25% of the group suffered serious or chronic illness in their childhood years. They theorize that these young people were “necessarily isolated from their peers, at least for considerable lengths of time, and spent more time alone, which meant they had more time for reading and introspection and often had close associations with intellectually stimulating adults” (Goertzel et al., 1978, p. 127).
In her extensive review of existing research on the life backgrounds of the genius and exceptional creative individual, Ochse (1990) proposed a developmental pattern for creative individuals which integrates a number of the factors cited above. Adler’s (1992) theory of inferiority also recognized that the early childhood feeling of inferiority may lead to striving to achieve mastery and superiority in the world. To strive to do something creative comes from the same motivation of compensation.
Awareness of Physical Decline, Loss, and Death
An awareness of the commencement of physical decline and a recognition of personal mortality may also contribute to creativity. There is a new sense of time being limited, and of the work or actions the individual seeks to accomplish in the time remaining to him/her (Wolf, 1991). There is a questioning of what form living may take in the time remaining, a searching of what action or behaviors to devote oneself to, and attempts to reshape or redirect one’s life accordingly (Corlett & Millner, 1993; Erikson, 1958; Levinson, 1986, 1996; Quenk, 1996).
Daniel Levinson (1996) believed that the midlife crisis, often resulting from an awareness of dwindling life opportunity and personal mortality, was a common part of development. He believed that this crisis contributes to the individuation process: “We have a clearer sense of who we are and what we want. We draw more fully on our inner resources (desires, values, talents, archetypal potentials). We are more autonomous, self-generating, self-responsible” (Levinson, 1996, p. 32). Thus, midlife crisis indirectly contributes to fuller development of our talents and creativity.
Jaques (1965) explored the midlife experience of creative individuals and argued that, at the peak of their creative powers, they were also aware of eventual loss and death. For some, such awareness resulted in decline and loss of creative work; for others, such experience added a new dimension to it. Worth’s (2000) study found evidence of changes in creative work processes and products in midlife and beyond in his sample of creative individuals.
Simonton (1983) argued that the content of Athenian and Shakespearean plays reflected the ages of the authors, with later plays showing more focus on the religious, spiritual, or mystical. In a later study, Simonton (1994) identified clear shifts in end-of-life work in classical composers, in which they had shorter, arguably more effective playing times, displayed shifts in melodic structures, and were rated as more profound by musicologists. The experiences of aging and loss may have resulted in the tolerance and acceptance of these changes and a determination to persist in their creative work.
Struggling with Psychopathology and Suffering
Creativity is often associated with psychopathology in the common expression of the “mad genius.” There is some empirical evidence from biographical research for this hypothesis.
In their book, Zara and Lee (2012) conclude that great art comes from great pain. Tortured Artists comprises illuminating profiles of forty-eight celebrated figures from literature, music, drama, and visual art—everyone from Charles Schulz to Charlie Parker, Michelangelo to Madonna, Andy Warhol to Amy Winehouse. Each profile shows how pain and suffering inspired the subject’s art, thereby revealing the common thread that binds artistic expression of every conceivable type. This book illustrates the surprising extent to which inner and outer turmoil fuel the creative process.
Gardner (1993) also documents how suffering is part of the price of being an exceptionally creative person across different disciplines. T. S Elliot, following his divorce, especially after his second marriage, became much happier, but also much less productive. Einstein was the perennial child who had difficulty relating to others; he viewed this inability as part of the price he had to pay for being able to think originally. Freud was also alone in the world. Picasso, Igor Stravinsky, Martha Graham, and Mahatma Gandhi also had to suffer personally for their giftedness and landmark contributions.
Flach (2003) spent years studying how people developed new strengths and resilience from going through catastrophes, terrible hardships, and difficult major turning points in their lives. He has identified three common traits of resilient people: (a) creativity, (b) the ability to tolerate emotional or physical pain, and (c) the ability to discover new ways to approach life. His conclusion was consistent with our DAW hypothesis. Flach also reports that resilient people tend to develop new perspectives on interpreting negative events and giving them new meanings to maintain a state of coherence in times of stress and disruptions, thus supporting the important role of meaning in coping with suffering. Digging deeper during adversity is related to both discovering new meanings and new ways of coping with stress.
The Power of Failure and Frustration: Applications of the DAW Hypothesis
Recently, more and more people realize the power of failure and frustration in promoting creativity and innovation. Nigel Barber (2013) provides numerous real life examples to illustrate the benefit of failures; these include Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman, General MacArthur, and Thomas Alva Edison. He concludes: “Only people with extensive histories of failure could survive the difficulties that these individuals endured. … Never underestimate the magical properties of failure. It rewires the brain and gets the creative juices flowing” (para. 10-11, 15).
In a similar vein, Conan O’Brien (2011) in his commencement speech at Dartmouth College discussed his experience of personal failures and encouraged the graduating students to learn from the inevitable disappointing episodes that life will generate. He said: “It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique. It’s not easy, but if you accept your misfortune and handle it right, your perceived failure can be a catalyst for profound re-invention.”
Jonah Lehrer (2012) in his book Imagine: How Creativity Works points out that frustration is at the heart of creativity; he noted that, for every success, people like to talk about the happy ending and neglect to mention the difficult times of failures and thoughts of quitting prior to the eventual breakthrough.
Even in the business world, the benefits of failure are recognized. A number of publications in Harvard Business Review have recently emphasized the importance of failure in increasing creativity and innovation (e.g., Sims, 2012; Sundheim, 2013).
Consistent with the DAW hypothesis, creativity is the result of a human condition of risk and failure as articulated by Ivy Ross’ review of Sarah Lewis’ (2014) The Rise:
Creativity is not a process, as so many books would like us to believe. It is a human condition waiting to be unearthed, as Sarah Lewis so beautifully shows us through her sharing of connected stories and personal insights in The Rise.
Economist Tim Harford (2011) explains why success always starts with failure and overcoming one’s mistakes. Harford emphasizes the importance of trial and error, arguing that “the more complex and elusive our problems are, the more effective trial and error becomes” (p. 35). Thus, we need to learn not of be afraid of failure as well as how to deal with setbacks and disappointments in creative ways in order to succeed.
Such training needs to begin from parenting. Protecting children from experiencing failure or difficulty will deprive them of the opportunity to become resilient and successful workers. What is needed is to provide a safe and trusting environment in which children are challenged to tolerate and overcome failure and frustration. This is the only way they can learn resourcefulness and creativity. Recently, Alina Tugent (2011) wrote:
Yes, our children need to succeed, but we have to know—and repeat it to ourselves over and over and over—that they also need to fail. The type of children we raise will be the employees and employers of tomorrow, and they will carry what they learn about mistakes when young right into the workplace. (p. 249)
Experiential education (Gemmell & Kolb, 2011; Kolb, 2015) can also challenge people to learn creativity through facing risks and failures in new situations. The important lesson is that we need to learn how to expose ourselves in challenging situations in order to unleash our creative potentials from overcoming difficulties in spite of the negative feelings of fear and frustrations.
The above quotes from authors in different domains may serve to illustrate the practical applications of the DAW hypothesis. By nature, failure and rejection can be very unpleasant and scary. Yet, paradoxically, these negative experiences are beneficial for us to become resourceful and creative, according to the DAW hypothesis. From this perspective, downturns are opportunities for new developments; failures and defeats are our best teachers and motivators for future success. It is through confronting and overcoming seemingly impossible problems that that we can grow as creative human beings.
In sum, our DAW hypothesis about the creative benefits of difficulties and negative emotions has received support from both psychological research and human experiences. In a culture that emphasizes happiness and instant gratification, it may be helpful to heed the message of the second wave of positive psychology (PP 2.0), which views adversity and negative emotions as the fertile soil for character strengths to grow, such as persistence and creativity (Ivtzan, Lomas, Hefferon, & Worth, 2016; Wong, 2011). Just as the broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions represents a cornerstone of PP 1.0 research, the DAW hypothesis of negative emotions represents one of the major research areas in PP 2.0.
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