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


    This content downloaded from on Sun, 15 Jun 2014 23:41:53 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions


    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 d