I have developed two theories of creativity: The Investment Theory of Creativity and the Propulsion Theory of Creative Contributions.


Investment Theory of Creativity

The investment theory of creativity, proposed in collaboration with Todd Lubart, holds that creativity is in large part a decision.  In particular, it is a decision to buy low and sell high in the world of ideas.  Creative people, like good investors, generate ideas that, at the time are viewed as novel and perhaps slightly ridiculous.  The creative individuals are metaphorically “buying low.“  Then, once their ideas have gained some acceptance, the creative individuals “sell high,“ reaping the profits of their good idea and moving on to the next unpopular idea. 

Creative individuals, by their nature, tend to defy the crowd.  They resist merely thinking or doing what others are thinking or doing.   Rather, they tend to go off in their own direction, seeking to propose ideas that are both novel and useful in some way.  The greatest obstacle to creativity, therefore, often is not exactly strictures from others, but rather the limitations one places on one’s own thinking.  Such limitations, however, may derive from processes of enculturation and socialization, so that it often is not clear whether restrictions on creativity are internal or, down the line, externally imposed.

Creativity is a decision in the same way investing is.  People are not born creative or uncreative.  Rather, they develop a set of attitudes toward life that characterize those who are willing to go their own way.  Examples of such attitudes toward life are willingness to (a) redefine problems in novel ways, (b) take sensible risks,  (c) “sell” ideas that others might not initially accept, (d) persevere in the face of obstacles, and (e) examine whether their own preconceptions are interfering with their creative process.  Such attitudes are teachable and can be ingrained in students through instruction that encourages students to think for themselves.

Creativity comprises several different aspects:  (a) abilities, (b) knowledge, (c) styles of thinking, (d) personality attributes, (e) motivation, and especially intrinsic motivation, and (f) environment.  A person can have the creative ability that would allow for creativity, for example, but without a willingness to take sensible risks or an environment that provides at least minimal support for creativity, that individual’s potential creativity may be suppressed.  It is thus crucially important, especially in schools, to provide an environment that allows creativity to flourish—not just in word, but also in deed.  At the same time, an individual can have a creative attitude but without the skills of creativity—such as looking for reconciliation of opposing ideas and dialectical thinking—may not reach his or her full creative potential.


Key References

Sternberg, R. J., & Lubart, T. I. (1991). An investment theory of creativity and its development. Human Development, 34(1), 1–31.

Sternberg, R. J., & Lubart, T. I. (1992). Buy low and sell high: An investment approach to creativity. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 1(1), 1–5.

Lubart, T. I., & Sternberg, R. J. (1995). An investment approach to creativity: Theory and data. In S. M. Smith, T. B. Ward, & R. A. Finke (Eds.), The creative cognition approach (pp. 269–302). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Sternberg, R. J., & Lubart, T. I. (1995). Defying the crowd: Cultivating creativity in a culture of conformity. New York: Free Press.

Sternberg, R. J., & Lubart, T. I. (1996). Investing in creativity. American Psychologist, 51(7), 677–688.

Sternberg, R. J., & Williams, W. M. (1996). How to develop student creativity. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Sternberg, R. J., O’Hara, L. A, & Lubart, T. L. (1997 Fall). Creativity as investment. California Management Review, 40(1), 8–21.

Sternberg, R. J. (2003). Wisdom, intelligence, and creativity synthesized. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Sternberg, R. J. (2006). The nature of creativity. Creativity Research Journal, 18 (1), 87–98.

Sternberg, R. J. (2012).  The assessment of creativity: An investment-based approach.  Creativity Research Journal, 24(1), 3-12.



Propulsion Theory of Creative Contributions

Creative contributions can be of multiple kinds.  I originally proposed, and then further developed, in collaboration with James Kaufman and Jean Pretz, a propulsion theory of creative contributions that seeks to delineate the different ways in which contributions can be creative.

Some kinds of creative contributions move forward in an already existing direction.  The most basic kind of creativity is (1) conceptual replication, which is a product that basically repeats what has been done before with slight variation.  For example, an artwork originally done in watercolors might essentially be copied in oil paints.  A (2) redefinition is a reconceptualization of a creative idea, so that an idea that was originally proposed for one purpose subsequently is used for another purpose.  An example, would be aspirin, originally used for analgesia but more recently used to help prevent recurrence of heart attacks.  A (3) forward incrementation is the next step in a usually long chain of ideas.  It might be the next scientific experiment in a series or the next novel coming out of the last one.  Forward incrementations are the ideas that are often preferred by society because they are relatively less threatening to certain stakeholders than are many other kinds of creative contributions.  An (4) advance forward incrementation is a next step that is a large leap beyond the last idea.  Advance forward incrementations often more too fast or too far for people to grasp or appreciate them, and thus frequently encounter resistance.  An example would be the kind of iconic representation in personal computers that was first proposed by Xerox, before people were ready for it, and then proposed by and accepted from Apple in its Macintosh line of computers. 

Other kinds of creative contributions take a new direction from previous work.  A (5) redirection is a contribution that moves a field in a direction different from that in which it has been moving.  Redirections tend to be threatening to stakeholders because they move a field in a direction different from that in which it has been going, and hence risk making other people’s work in the original line irrelevant.  They therefore tend to encounter stiff resistance.  An example would be the neuroscience revolution, which tends to view in terms of the brain phenomena that previously were viewed in other terms.  A (6) regressive redirection is a contribution that takes a field in a new direction, but a direction that has been proposed earlier and perhaps discarded.  For example, Thomas Piketty’s recent work on Capital in the 21st Century does, and was intended to bring back memory of the work of Karl Marx’s much earlier work in Das Kapital.  A (7) reinitiation is a contribution that not only moves a field in a new direction but also essentially starts a field over.  Reinitiations tend to be the most threatening kinds of creative contributions.  Chomsky’s work on transformational grammar represented this kind of creative contribution.  Finally, a (8) synthesis brings together previously divergent lines of thought, such as the invention of the seaplane.


Key References

Sternberg, R. J. (1999). A propulsion model of types of creative contributions. Review of General Psychology, 3, 83–100.

Sternberg, R. J., Kaufman, J. C., & Pretz, J. E. (2001) The propulsion model of creative contributions applied to the arts and letters. Journal of Creative Behavior, 35(2), 75–101.

Sternberg, R. J., Kaufman, J. C., & Pretz, J. E. (2002). The creativity conundrum: A propulsion model of kinds of creative contributions. New York: Psychology Press.

Sternberg, R. J., Kaufman, J. C., & Pretz, J. E. (2003). A propulsion model of creative leadership. Leadership Quarterly, 14, 455–473.

Sternberg, R. J., Pretz, J. E., & Kaufman. (2003). Types of innovation. In L. Shavinina (Ed.) The international handbook of innovation (pp. 158–169). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.