Academic journal article The Behavior Analyst Today

Toward a Behavioral Theory of "Creativity": A Preliminary Essay

Academic journal article The Behavior Analyst Today

Toward a Behavioral Theory of "Creativity": A Preliminary Essay

Article excerpt


"Creativity" is an ordinary language term that appears to have value to the culture. "Creativity" is often determined by the admission of "creative" behavior. Creative behavior is a term that can be deconstructed by behavior analysts leading to training procedures to increase this behavior. Behavior analysis is a theory of context akin to evolutionary theory. In this type of theorizing the question is not if the context can be arranged to lead to greater amount of "creative" behavior but how to arrange the context to select for such behaviors. This paper attempts to serve as a preliminary essay on the selection of creativity, the production of novel products and forms of behavior through contingency co-adduction and derived stimulus relations, and the arrangement of the context to set the occasion for exploratory behavior that some would term "curiosity." Special emphasis is placed on such use in incentive programs to increase creativity.

Keywords: Creativity, verbal behavior, novelty


In the operational analysis of psychological terms, Skinner (1948) discussed the importance of taking ordinary language phenomena and attempting to determine the contexts in which they occur. Skinner did not clearly lay out the determinants for whether an ordinary language phenomenon is significant for behavior analyst to explore specifically; however a general read of the work suggests a two prong test. Prong one--the term would need to be meaningful in the sense that properties or functions ascribed to the behavioral event would produce conditions that define the event. In addition, prong two the fruitfulness by specifying the functions and defining conditions, we can predict new events or control (increasing or decreasing the occurrence of such events according to cultural values). Creativity appears to be an ordinary language term that would meet this two-pronged test, for it is a term that has important social interest, particularly in the school system and for employers and it appears that behavior analyst's can do work to specify contexts to increase its occurrence.

As Skinner (1974) pointed out, definitional issues have always plagued the study of creativity. Many would like to drive creativity into the organism and speak of a "creative mind"; however, the concept of the "creative mind" has always been plagued with problems including issues of mind-body dualism (Skinner, 1974).

Behavior analysis represents an alternative tradition. Broadly viewed, the problems facing behavior analyst's studying creativity are the same as behavior analyst's interested in food and water seeking activities or for that matter any class of behavior. In essence, the problem is one of understanding behavioral variability. In coping with the problem, the behavior analyst is confronted with the task of specifying functional relationships that may exist between the behavior being observed, the relevant conditions and factors that affect the behavior, and biological constraints the behavior. In sort the questions become how do we define "creativity?" What factors make the person act "creative?"

Behavior analysis takes a unique focus in the study of creativity as opposed to psychology because they are interested in developing a theory of context (Hayes & Hayes, 1992; Morris, 1988; Zuriff, 1980, 1985). This theory focuses on answering why questions as to orderliness and the workings of the phenomenon in reference to these environmental / contextual conditions. Context is not just setting specific but also the on going action in time (Morris, 2003). In behavior analysis, the context is broken down over scales of analysis that roughly correlate with different reference points. Thus, in the tradition of behavior analysis all behavior is:

   the joint product of (i) contingencies of survival responsible for
   natural selection and (ii) contingencies of reinforcement
   responsible for the repertoires of individuals, including (iii) the
   special contingencies maintained by an evolved social environment
   (Skinner, 1981 p. … 
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