How our creativity is shaped by our culture

When you think of creative people who immediately springs to mind?

Da Vinci, Ive, Lovelace, Pelé?

Far from just an individual capacity, our creativity is also influenced by the environments that we live and learn in. Each of those memorable people were shaped by their culture.

our behaviour is also shaped by the culture we live in, largely through social norms, contexts that cue them, and motives that drive us to follow, reject or invert those norms.

Thomas Wolbers a Professor of Ageing and Cognition explains in his essay,”Three Pathways By Which Culture Can Influence Creativity”, that it can impact on our cognitive abilities, the creative process and the value we associate with the output.

Creative Potential

Wolbers explores the concept that our application of creativity fits the domains that our culture values. If we are products of our cultural influences then we all carry a certain bias.

This bias is perhaps towards applying our creativity in domains that continue to affirm what our culture deems as important.

For example, Korea with its strong cultural valuation of status and interdependence is the world leader in the industry of massively multiplayer simulation games, which involve accruing and using status and maintaining coalitions

Individuals may be more creative in some domains than in others because their cultural background values those domains and focuses the individual’s cognitive and motivational resources.

I wonder what those domains are for me? I suppose in some way sharing content, thinking and understandings through my writing is a direct consequence of the culture my professional life started in.

When I say direct result, I mean I worked in the opposite direction. Much of the expertise, sharing and learning was in closed and stagnant systems. That was a norm I wanted to invert.

In what domains do you apply your most creative self? How are those choices influenced by the cultural cues you have experienced?

Creative Process

Most people don’t think that creativity has a process. It can be often viewed as a magical act of serendipity for special talented people.

This is a long way from the truth. Creative processes are much more rigorous than we think. Those processes can be clearly defined and described. Also true is the ability to describe the salient conditions for creativity to flourish.

Wolbers explains that creativity usually involves two types of processes: the flexibility pathway and the persistence pathway.

Cognitive flexibility refers to the ease with which people can switch to a different approach or consider a different perspective, and cognitive persistence represents the degree of sustained and focused task-directed cognitive effort.

The reference to cognitive flexibility and agility here reminds me of the type of language we often see defining divergent thinking. Our ability to see a challenge from a different perspective is an important creative trait.

The cognitive persistence pathway refers to a more incremental, cautious, and analytical processing in an attempt to be incremental and cumulative.

Our cultural norms and cues will push us towards these pathways differently. What is valued in our society, in our culture, directs the process we apply in generating new ideas.

“inventions result more frequently from projects with incremental objectives in Japan (66 percent) than the U.S. (48 percent), and less frequently from projects with breakthrough objectives in Japan (8 percent) than the U.S. (24 percent).”

It is one thing to look at inventions in the US, it is another to look at the professional culture of teaching in the UK or Australia. On reflection the professional culture that I spent ten years working in was a risk averse culture.

The majority of breakthroughs and shifts in education are incremental, cumulative, glacial.

I may have a preference for more significant, higher-risk ideas as part of my process, but I think the culture around me wants me to slow down.

What do you think? Does education covet the paradigm shift, but really just wants slow change?

Creative Output

The value we place on ideas can be vastly different depending on the perspective we have.

Creativity is often defined as generating ideas that have value. Wolbers points out that this can be very subjective and wholly dependent on the culture of the beholder.

A famous example is the reception of Ang Lee’s movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which was acclaimed by Western film critics for its stylistic innovations, whereas Chinese critics judged it as Ang Lee’s weakest movie, presumably because they had seen many similar movies before.

Over the years I have spent countless hours talking with different groups about how we might judge different ideas as part of the process of design thinking.

All of this time perhaps our cultural preferences have been influencing what we consider has value. Wolbers explains that Chinese culture values usefulness more than novelty, whereas Western culture values novelty more than usefulness.

individuals with an Eastern background may be more concerned with usefulness than originality and engage different implicit or explicit standards to downplay or elaborate ideas and insights than their counterparts with a Western background.

As a primary school teacher I certainly had both in mind. I think the culture around me, in the schools I worked in and the wider education system valued usefulness over originality.

Original ideas were entertained on the fringes.

How does our definition of value influence the emphasis we put on certain ideas? Do you think you value originality or usefulness, or both?

Takeaways

A few key takeaways for me have been the three areas highlighted by Wolber. It is a succinct collection of elements we might consider in our own contexts.

  • Creative Potential — where we apply our creative capacity
  • Creative Process — how we go about generating ideas
  • Creative Value — what we value most about our ideas

As I have been exploring this work I have also been thinking how school culture might influence creativity. However you could replace school with company, organisation, club or whatever you like. When I say school culture I mean the implicit and explicit values, beliefs, and norms that surround each student.

Some takeaway questions spring to mind to ponder on further:

  • How might school culture influence each student’s creative potential and the domains in which they apply their creative capacity?
  • How might the culture at school dictate the type of creative process that is adopted by teachers and students (all learners)?
  • How might we explore what value systems we use to judge creativity in our schools?

Download the essay here: “Three pathways by which culture can influence creativity” by Thomas Wolbers.


This is the first in my thinking series exploring the Cultures of Creativity essays published by the LEGO Foundation, and their relevance to schools and learning organisations.

Next in my series is “Play, culture and creativity” by David Whitebread & Marisol Basilio.

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