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What is creativity?

Researchers usually define creativity as being both new and task-appropriate.

Being different is not enough! Let’s say I ask you to solve a mathematical proof in a creative way and you write “Fish are happy.” This response is new. It is different. It is unusual. It’s a little weird. But it’s not creative.

For something to be creative, it must also answer the right question.

There are other things that people think are part of creativity. Some say it should also be surprising. Others say that it should be of high quality. Still others say that there should be some level of public agreement.

Another conceptualization is that there are four ways that creativity can be studied (often called the Four P’s): Process, Product, Person, and Place. In other words, when we talk about creativity we might be talking about how to be creative (the process), what’s creative (the product), who’s creative (the person), and where and when we are creative (the place).

For a fuller discussion, see Creativity 101.


Kaufman, J. C. (2009). Creativity 101. New York: Springer.

What are some theories of creativity?

There are many, many theories about how to conceptualize creativity. I will highlight some of the ones by me and my colleagues.


The Four-C Model of Creativity

Created with Dr. Ron Beghetto.

The Four-C Model of Creativity looks at creativity as a developmental process.

Most conceptions of creativity tend to take one of two approaches: Big-C and little-c.

Big-C is creative genius. When you think of a classical composer, you probably think of Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, or someone similar. They are all at the Big-C level.

little-c is everyday creativity. It is the creativity inherent in everyday life. It might be someone who writes music for fun.

What Ron and I argue is that this basic distinction omits two key levels:

mini-c is the creativity that happens in the learning process. It could be a child learning to write a song.

Pro-c is expert-level creativity. It might be someone who’s composed music that is currently popular.

The life of a creative writer, for example, might progress through these stages as follows:

At a young age, Sally learns about writing poetry and tries many different forms. She writes a sonnet, a Haiku, and free verse. These poems may not be particularly good, but they are meaningful to her. This is mini c.

As she advances, she gets better. Maybe she reads some poetry at a coffee house and gets some poems published in her college literary magazine. Other people see some value in her poetry. This is little-c (we sometimes call this “county fair creativity”).

Sally keeps improving. She gets an MFA and teaches poetry at a liberal arts college. She regularly publishes her work in respected journals. This is Pro-c.

If she is very talented and very lucky, Sally may eventually be considered a truly great poet. Even after she has died, her writing may be studied and enjoyed by generations to come. This is Big-C.

All of us have mini-c, and most of us can reach little-c. Many of us can attain Pro-c with enough work and training. Few of us will reach Big-C – which is okay. All levels and types of creativity are valuable.


Beghetto, R. A., & Kaufman, J. C. (2007). Toward a broader conception of creativity: A case for “mini-c” creativity. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 1, 13-79.

Kaufman, J. C., & Beghetto, R. A. (2009). Beyond big and little: The Four C Model   of Creativity. Review of General Psychology, 13, 1-12.


The Amusement Park Theoretical (APT) Model

John Baer and I developed the Amusement Park Theoretical (APT) model of creativity to integrate domain-general and domain-specific views of creativity.

Creativity can be thought of as either domain-specific or domain-general. What does this mean? Simply stated, creativity can be seen as one thing or many things. If creativity is one thing (or domain-general), then you can legitimately call someone “creative.” The same things (intelligence, personality, and so on) that would make them creative in one area (writing poetry or cracking jokes or conducting science experiments) would also make them creative in a different area (painting pictures or inventing or designing a website). If creativity is domain-specific, then being creative in one area would not make you particularly more likely to be creative in a different area. For example, just because Doug can come up with a creative algebraic proof does not mean that he could whip up a batch of creative scrambled eggs or think up a creative caption for a cartoon.

Why does this matter? If creativity is domain-specific, then only very particular practice or training will increase your creativity. Doing problem-solving exercises or painting pictures will not necessarily transfer into other domains. Therefore, any business that tries to make its employees more creative by taking them on creative weekend retreats (let’s all learn to paint!) is kind of wasting time and money. In addition, we tend to associate creativity with the arts. Most of us think of artists and writers as being more “creative” than businesspeople or lawyers or scientists. An awful lot of us don’t think that we are creative because we don’t express it in a stereotypical (artistic) way. A domain-specific perspective argues that people are creative in different ways.

This is why John and I came up with the Amusement Park Theoretical (APT) model of creativity.

The APT model is based on the metaphor of a large amusement park. In an amusement park there are initial requirements that apply to all areas of the park. For example you will not be admitted without a ticket. You must be wearing proper attire (Disney has yet to sponsor a nudist day), and you must have some form of transportation to take you to the park. Similarly, there are initial requirements that, to varying degrees, are necessary to creative performance in all domains. For example, in order to be creative at something, you should have a certain base amount of intelligence (carrots are not creative). You also need to be motivated to be creative, regardless of what factors motivate you (if you don’t do anything, you aren’t creative).  Finally, you should be in an environmental that allows (and, ideally, nurtures) creative expression. If you are continually punished for being creative, it makes it harder. All three of these initial requirements are needed for any attempt at creativity to succeed.

Amusement parks also have general thematic areas (e.g., at Disney World one might select among EPCOT, the Magic Kingdom, the Animal Kingdom, and Disney-MGM Studios), just as there are several different general areas in which someone could be creative (e.g., the arts, science, business). Within each type of park, there are sections (e.g., Discovery Island Station, Dinoland, and Rifiki’s Planet Watch are all found in the Animal Kingdom), just as there are domains of creativity within larger general thematic areas (e.g., painting and poetry are domains in the general thematic area of the arts). These domains in turn can be subdivided into micro-domains (e.g., the Conservation Station and Wildlife Express Train are both part of Rifiki’s Plant Watch; in the domain of poetry, one might specialize in haikus or free verse).

Each step of the hierarchy can reveal layers of nuanced distinction. Artists and writers differ in certain ways. Journalists and poets differ in other ways. Even Haiku-practitioners and sonnet-masters will be more or less likely to have unique personality or intellectual profiles. By using this type of model, we can (with a lot more research) be able to help guide and nurture people into a creative discipline (or hobby) that is best tailored to their individual strengths and quirks.


Baer, J., & Kaufman, J. C. (2005a). Bridging generality and specificity:  The Amusement Park Theoretical (APT) Model of creativity. Roeper Review, 27, 158-163.

Kaufman, J. C., & Baer, J., (2005). The Amusement Park Theory of Creativity.  In J. C. Kaufman & J. Baer (Eds.), Creativity across domains: Faces of the muse (pp. 321-328). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.