Blind Variations, Chance Configurations, and Creative Genius

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  • Blind Variations, Chance Configurations, and Creative GeniusAuthor(s): Dean Keith SimontonSource: Psychological Inquiry, Vol. 4, No. 3 (1993), pp. 225-228Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd.Stable URL: .Accessed: 15/06/2014 23:41

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    Blind Variations, Chance Configurations, and Creative Genius

    Dean Keith Simonton University of California, Davis

    Eysenck's target article is an exciting read. As he points out, for some time creativity studies had shown signs of entering the stage of a degenerative research program. Psychoanalytic accounts of the creative per- son and Gestalt accounts of the creative process now seem passe. Psychometric approaches to the same phe- nomena, although once the rage, have sunk into de- spondency. And the current activity of cognitive psychologists in this area, although often provocative, fall short of a comprehensive theory. Their computer simulations, for example, concentrate on certain specif- ics of the creative process while utterly ignoring per- sonality and social context. What we lack are widely accepted theoretical approaches that explain all import- ant aspects of creativity. Eysenck's proposed theory tries to fill this sad gap.

    As we should expect of any sweeping theory, Eysenck's model is rich in ideas. He has tried to inte- grate a vast range of research findings-work that spans many decades. Therefore, I cannot possibly pro- vide a critique of his entire scheme. Instead, I focus on a single issue-the place of chance in creativity. Al- though Eysenck seems to downplay the role of chance in the creative process, I interpret his arguments and data quite differently.

    Let me begin by clearing up a potential source of confusion. Campbell (1960) termed his original model of creativity the blind-variation and selective-retention theory. My own elaboration of this theory I styled the chance-configuration theory. The rationale for the name change was a difference in emphasis and com- plexity between the two theories. For one thing, by introducing the concept of "configuration," I hoped to sprinkle a little Gestalt on the initial Darwinian frame-

    work. The basic idea was that the mind can generate innumerable combinations of concepts, but only a few of these will coalesce into a structural whole-a con- figuration. To offer an everyday illustration, think what happens when you write a sentence that you hope will communicate a profound idea. You have at your dis- posal a host of words and their synonyms for each subject, predicate, object, and other sentence compo- nent. You also have access to a variety of syntactical constructions that can adjust the expression to the finest shades of meaning. So, you search for that distinctive pattern of lexical elements and syntactical structures that convey precisely what you mean. That just-right sentence seems to encapsulate better than its more awkward rivals the meaning that before existed only in imagery or intuition.

    Another reason for the name change was my dissat- isfaction with Campbell's choice of the adjective blind. By claiming that the ideational variations were blind, he meant that the combinatory process lacked reason or foresight. The more novel a problem is, the more inad- equate are the received collection of algorithms and heuristics. Having nothing definite to guide the quest for a solution, the creator must grope in the darkness. The process is one of cognitive trial-and-error. It seems perfectly reasonable to style this process blind.

    Unfortunately, this word choice leads to some con- fusion. For those familiar with the problem-solving literature, blind often implies the same thing as blind search-which almost everybody recognizes as the heuristic of last resort. As Eysenck notes, a genuine blind search very quickly encounters a "combinatorial explosion" that makes it most unlikely that the venture will converge on a solution. Moreover, it is evident that


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    creators seldom engage in such an exhaustive and un- disciplined process. To be sure, James Watson appar- ently resorted to such a process in order to discover how the DNA bases might interlock to form a smooth double-helix. Yet, examples like this are exceedingly rare.

    To avoid this misunderstanding, I substituted the word chance. The elements that make up the problem space undergo free permutation until the mind chances upon a stable combination, or configuration. What do I mean by chance? Something happens by chance when the outcome is unpredictable. The most common reason for an outcome being unpredictable is that it is the upshot of many possible determinants, all more or less equally probable and all operating at cross-purposes. We therefore lack a rule of thumb to anticipate the result of any trial. The classic example is flipping a coin. If the probability of having the coin land heads up is really 50-50, then no heuristic can guide our expectations for a particular toss. For instance, we cannot adopt the rule that, if we have just seen five tails in a row, the sixth toss will produce a head.

    Notice that this alteration of terms actually changed very little. Toss of a fair coin is necessarily blind. Still, I thought that chance would better stress that the pro- cess behind the ideational combinations was funda- mentally probabilistic in nature. It could not be guided effectively by any predetermined rules. Any attempt to impose some logic on the procedure must fail. At least this failure would hold for those problems so novel that their solution would count as significant breakthroughs in some artistic or scientific discipline.

    In any case, my hope that chance would avoid con- fusion was naive. It only moved the confusion to an- other quarter. Many people have misconstrued what I meant by chance, and Eysenck is among them. The main cause of this misunderstanding is that many peo- ple perceive chance in dichotomous terms. A process is either chancy, or it is determined by some logic. To appreciate properly the role of chance in creativity, however, we must contemplate the phenomena as continua. We cannot truthfully speak of an either/or proposition.

    Suppose I engineer a loaded coin that shows up heads a million times out of a million tosses. In particular, say I devise a special magnetized disk that I toss on an electromagnetically charged playing surface. Now sup- pose further that, by turning a dial, I can alter the magnetic polarity of the surface to give the tails a prayer to appear. And when the juice is turned off completely, the odds of heads reverts to 50-50. Question: At what setting of the dial can we speak of this high-tech appa- ratus as a game of chance? Obviously, when the prob- ability of heads is 100%, the outcome is deterministic. Equally obvious is the conclusion that, when the prob-


    ability of heads is 50%, the outcome is one of pure chance. Where between these two extremes do we draw the line? Is it worthwhile even to do so? Might it be better to acknowledge that reality admits a spectrum spreading from the totally predictable to the totally unpredictable?

    Because this illustration is abstract, let's offer one that is more concrete. The inspiration for both Campbell's model and my own was the theory of evolution by natural selection. According to Darwin's theory, morphological, physiological, and behavioral variations feed into the selection process. The result is progressive adaptation to the environment. A key fea- ture of this theory, moreover, is that the biological variations are essentially blind. This blindness removes the teleology from the phenomenon, making evolution a natural process. In modem versions of Darwin's theory, this blind variation emerges by more than one route. These routes vary in the magnitude of the chanc- iness of the variations generated. At the extreme of almost complete randomness are mutations. These are so blind that the odds are stacked against them. They are far more likely to be deleterious than advantageous to survival, even within the egg or womb. The proce- dure of classic Mendelian genetics, in contrast, is less prone to produce maladaptive freaks. The genetic vari- ations, although haphazard, are restricted to genes that have, for the most part, proved their adaptive utility. Even genes that yield ill-fated genotypes when fully expressed will often confer some special advantage as a recessive trait-an asset that keeps it circulating in the gene pool. Sickle-cell anemia is the best known instance (and Eysenck notes how the psychotic dispo- sition may represent another).

    In any case, by confining the variations to traits that have proved their mettle, Mendelian permutations are, in a sense, employing a heuristic search. The search is certainly less wide-ranging than random mutation. Nevertheless, the restrictions can be constrained even further. Genes undergo independent assortment only when they are located on different chromosomes. In contrast, genes on the same chromosome are subject to linkage. They are passed down to offspring as a set. However, the further apart two gene loci are on the chromosome, the higher the likelihood that cross-over will occur during meiosis. Indeed, cross-over provided a major tool for mapping the chromosomes in the first place. Furthermore, to some undetermined extent, the phenomenon of linkage may reflect the wisdom handed down through many generations of natural selection. If true, this part of genetic variation is the opposite of blind.

    Hence, even in the production of genetic variations, the process may vary from the completely predictable (tight linkage) to the thoroughly unpredictable (random

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    mutation), with many gradations in-between. By anal- ogy, we might expect a similar continuity in human ideational variations. If so, it is not fruitful to ask whether chance plays a role in creativity. Rather, it makes more sense to inquire about the relative import- ance of chance processes in problems of various types. Some problems have solutions that are logically deter- mined, others require a bit more luck, and still others demand a great deal of luck.

    We might describe this continuum (roughly) in terms of the problem-solving literature. If I want to do a multiplication problem, I use an algorithm. And, unless I make a stupid arithmetical mistake (which I do often), the answer is guaranteed. Other problems cannot be solved algorithmically, but there do exist some heuris- tics to guide the search for a solution. Most of the exercises given in The Complete Problem Solver (Hayes, 1989) or in Games for the Superintelligent (Fixx, 1972) are of this nature. Guesswork is limited to figuring out the most appropriate way to represent the problem and the best heuristic to apply to that representation.

    But, as problems become more complex and more original, chance becomes ever more conspicuous. The number of alternative representations proliferates. The number of rival heuristics also expands. Furthermore, the alternative representations and the rival heuristics become equiprobable. The problem solver increasingly loses confidence that any one conceptualization or strategy will lead to a solution. Under such circum- stances, the chance of arriving at a solution will be contingent on a myriad of arbitrary factors. In short, problem solving will become a matter of chance. Were you lucky enough to have begun with the optimal representation? Were you fortunate enough to have applied the most efficient heuristic? Did you acciden- tally stumble upon a fruitful approach that would not have been on your short list of promising strategies?

    The key criterion for chanciness is implicit in this example. We say that the creative process becomes more probabilistic whenever (a) the number of poten- tial paths to a solution increases and (b) the subjective odds that these alternative paths will lead to a solution becomes more equal and, so, equally small besides. By defining the probabilistic nature of creativity this way, the controversy between Eysenck's view and my own disappears. For example, I agree perfectly that the analogy problem "Optimal: Mumpsimus = Best: T" will not elicit a blind search. A problem like this is too well defined to require anything more than a straight- forward line of attack. Nonetheless, as problems be- come increasingly complex and novel, the cognitive procedures must move along the continuum toward more probabilistic modes of thinking. These processes will seldom be fully random, but rather they will get

    closer to the realm of numerous and equiprobable alter- natives. In particular, the mind will shift from more logical information-processing to less disciplined, as- sociational (or connectionist) processing.

    Eysenck illustrates exactly what I mean in his article. He introduces the notion of "relevance," which puts constraints on-but does not determine!-the free per- mutation of ideas. He goes on to speak of individual differences in people's associative "horizons." Cre- ative minds have broad horizons that widen the domain of subjective relevance. In Figure 1, he offers examples of word associations to a pair of rather different words-foot and command. Someone with a narrow horizon will conjure up only high-frequency associa- tions to these verbal stimuli, whereas someone with a broad horizon can retrieve far more associates. In addi- tion, as the creative mind dips down to these ever more remote associations, the alternative associates become increasingly equiprobable (see also Mednick, 1962; Simonton, 1980).

    This is precisely the situation that I argued was responsible for the chance variations in mental ele- ments (Simonton, 1988b, 1988c). When the mind has many equiprobable paths that it might pursue, the odds of following one or another associative run is largely subject to chance. For instance, the fortuitous influx of external events in a creator's life may prime one asso- ciate over another, sending the string of associations capriciously along one course rather than an alterna- tive. Moreover, when the associations can reach out to the outer limits of subjective relevance, it is feasible for the creative mind to arrive at irrelevant associations. Thus, superficially, the words foot and command seem to occupy disparate spheres of relevance, and, yet, if the horizons are broad enough, the two words can be linked. Hence, if an intellect can go beyond the mun- dane associations foot-leg and command-voice, the association foot-soldier can tie in with the association command-soldier. This remote associative connection is available, but, owing to the large number of alterna- tive low-probability associations, the appearance of this connection is perforce unpredictable. It may occur earlier, or later, or not at all-according to the whimsy of other mental events. And yet, who knows? This specific associative connection may provide the critical answer to a creative problem, such as a line of poetry or even scientific theory!

    In this interpretation of Eysenck's model, many of his arguments against chance lose force. For instance, to say that a combinatorial explosion renders a blind search impossible for all but the simplest problems misses the point. Chance variations do not require that all possible avenues be pursued-or even all conceiv- able ones. Many scientists "missed the boat" on a given discovery even though they had the cognitive where-


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    withal. But their associations rambled along less prof- itable paths while another's associations chanced upon a more fruitful course. After reading Origin of Species, T. H. Huxley exclaimed with annoyance: "Now why didn't I think of that?"

    In my view, the only requirement is that the associa- tive process branch out into the domain of broad hori- zons. There associations are so numerous, equiprobable, and remote that the appearance of a stable configuration becomes a matter of chance. More- over, according to my theoretical framework, the free- associative business does not take place in core consciousness. Rather, it can occur on the periphery of awareness, deflected this way and that by the random intrusions of subliminal events. This means that the generation of chance permutations does not emerge from deliberate concentration. Instead, this process re- flects more the more haphazard or inadvertent ram- blings of a mind in a less disciplined state. To lean on Freudian terminology-Eysenck forgive me!-the blind variations involve primary process, not secondary process.

    Admittedly, after alloting so much of creative thought to these deeper realms of mental experience, I feel as if the theory were removed from empirical verification. Implicitly, the creative process could not be revealed by the protocol analyses that populate experimental studies of problem solving. Nevertheless, the empirical indeterminacy occurs only at the level of cognitive introspection. In my development of the blind-variation or chance-configuration theory, I have documented how this position leads to specific predic- tions about various aspects of creative behavior. Thus, when fully elaborated, the variation-selection model helps explicate (a) the skewed distribution of lifetime creative output, (b) the distinctive career trajectories of creative output across the lifespan, (c) the probabilistic relation between quantity and quality across and within careers, (d) the occurrence of multiple discoveries and inventions, (e) the developmental antecedents of cre- ative genius, and (f) the characteristic personality pro- files of eminent creators (see Simonton, 1984, 1987, 1988a, 1988b, 1988c, 1989,1991a, 1991b, 1992). Con- sequently, the process is revealed by its effects, not- withstanding its tangential place in immediate experience.

    So, the contrast between my conception of chance and Eysenck's is more than a mere matter of semantics. I see the Darwinian theory of creative genius as perme- ating all major facets of the phenomenon. At the same time, our respective ideas on the subject overlap so much that I cannot ignore the contributions made by


    Eysenck's speculative essay. I have been trying to develop the initial theory sketched in my Scientific Genius (Simonton, 1988c) into a more comprehensive framework. Besides accommodating all guises of cre- ative genius, I hope this theory will deal more ade- quately with basic cognitive processes, pathological dispositions, and genetic substrates. Now, alas! Even if I succeed, I will have no other option but to style the future model the Campbell-Eysenck-Simonton theory of creativity!


    Dean Keith Simonton, Department of Psychology, University of Califomia, Davis, CA 95616-8686.


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    Article Contentsp. 225p. 226p. 227p. 228

    Issue Table of ContentsPsychological Inquiry, Vol. 4, No. 3 (1993), pp. 147-246Front MatterTarget ArticleCreativity and Personality: Suggestions for a Theory [pp. 147-178]

    CommentariesWhat Does a Theory of Creativity Require? [pp. 179-181]Controllable Oddness as a Resource in Creativity [pp. 182-184]When Is Psychoticism Psychoticism? And How Does It Really Relate to Creativity? [pp. 184-188]Does Overinclusiveness Equal Creativity? [pp. 188-189]Creativity and Psychoticism: An Overinclusive Model [pp. 190-192]Creativity, Constitution, and Childhood [pp. 193-196]The Assessment Piece of the Creativity Pie [pp. 196-200]Whither Goes DNA: An Intelligent Creative Process? Or, Creativity Emanating from Psychotic Traits? [pp. 200-204]The Problematic Elevation of Concepts to Positions of Preeminence [pp. 205-209]Psychoticism, Degeneration, and Creativity [pp. 209-211]Everyday Creativity, Eminent Creativity, and Psychopathology [pp. 212-217]Creativity: Complex and Healthy [pp. 217-221]Creativity, Causality, and the Separation of Personality and Cognition [pp. 221-225]Blind Variations, Chance Configurations, and Creative Genius [pp. 225-228]Investing in Creativity [pp. 229-232]Understanding Creativity: Where to Start? [pp. 232-234]Creativity, Heritability, Familiality: Which Word Does Not Belong? [pp. 235-237]

    Author's ResponseCreativity and Personality: An Attempt to Bridge Divergent Traditions [pp. 238-246]

    Back Matter