Creativity, like any other aspect of human endeavor, is susceptible to a variety of social, economical, political, and cultural influences. Culture in particular has an influence over creativity through four different means (Lubart, 1999): different cultures may have different definitions of what can be considered creative; individuals from different cultures employ different cognitive tactics when behaving creatively; language has some impact over creativity; and particular types of environment possibly play a role in either helping enhance or reduce creative endeavors.
In spite of the possibility that what is to be considered a creative enterprise differs from culture to culture, there is some room for doing cross cultural research on creativity by defining it at its most basic level. Creativity in simplest terms is a process where individuals are able to generate new and useful solutions to a particular problem (Rothenberg, 1996). Creativity is about divergent thinking where one tries to generate as many unique and novel solutions to a given problem as possible (Guilford, 1967).
Using the divergent thinking aspect as the defining characteristic of creativity, Kharkhurin and Motalleebi (2008), researchers at American University of Sharjah, UAE, carried out a study with the goal of finding out how American, Russian, and Iranian college students would perform on same tests of creativity and how their respective cultures plausibly played a role in their performance differences, if any. In this study United States was selected because of its democratic and individualist values, while Iran was selected for its collectivist and authoritarian tendencies. Russia was chosen to be studied in this research since Russian culture seems to be in an intermediate position between being a collectivist and an individualist society.
The study by Kharkhurin and Motalleebi (2008) was carried out with 47 U.S. college students, 38 Iranian college students, and 23 Russian college students, who were all given a battery of questionnaires translated in their native languages that measured their ability to engage in divergent thinking, among other things. The goal of the study was to simply find out if there were any differences in scores measuring creativity among participants from different countries.
The results of the study confirmed proposed hypothesis as American and Russian participants scored higher on tests measuring divergent thinking compared to Iranian participants. More specifically, the American and Russian participants were able to produce a higher number of responses to a given problem (fluency) and their responses were more novel (originality) compared to Iranian participants.
The reason why Iranians were not able to match the quantity of responses produced by American and Russian participants is possibly because Iranian education system teaches individuals to find a single correct answer instead of nurturing people to come up with answers of their own (Kharkhurin & Motalleebi, 2008). Furthermore, the reason why Iranian students gave less novel responses to problems in the study than American and Russian participants is because Iranian culture cultivates in its citizens a tendency to avoid ambiguity (Hofstede, 2001). Totalitarian regimes in general try to remove uncertainty from the psyche of their citizens by providing them with rituals and other formal rules of behavior. And due to this cultivation of low tolerance for deviancy, it’s likely that Iranian participants limited themselves to providing standard responses to problems in the study.
This study certainly presents democratic and individualist societies like U.S. and Russia in a positive light by showing that individuals from such cultures have more creative potential than those who hail from a more collectivistic and authoritarian culture. But every silver lining has a cloud around it. 20th century sociologist Max Weber did not shy away from pointing out that there was a big cost to living in a society full of freedom, equality, and unending progress. That cost is alienation, living a life of continual identity crises.
In order to establish freedom and equality in a society, Weber argued that bureaucracy was a necessity. If a person for example were to go to DMV (department of motor vehicles) and get treated favorably because she had a friend working there, this would seen as an instance of corruption. But if this same exact scenario were to occur in a collectivist culture, it would be perceived as a display of good familial relations. Individuals living in free and equality emphasizing societies are in some sense forced to treat each other void of emotional connections since doing otherwise would undermine the society’s sense of freedom and equality.
A 15th century farmer living a brutish and harsh life had no freedom whatsoever. But at least he knew who he was. On the other hand, person living in 21st century has complete freedom. But this freedom comes at the cost of not knowing what one should with one’s life, what’s the purpose of doing anything in life. Why choose to have one sense of self over the other when everyone is technically the same and there is no inherent purpose to one’s existence. For those who are consciously aware of the problem of alienation, Weber argued that there were two paths available to walk. Either one should simply learn to cope living a life of eternal identity crises, or one should go join an authoritarian or religious community where one would be told what one’s purpose in life ought to be.
Guilford, J.P. (1967). The nature of human intelligence. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Hofstede, G. (2001). Culture’s consequences: Comparing values, behaviors, institutions, and organizations across nations (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Kharkhurin, A.V., & Motalleebi, S.N.S. (2008). The impact of culture on the creative potential of American, Russian, and Iranian college students. Creativity Research Journal, 20, 404-411.
Lubart, T.I. (1999). Creativity across cultures. In R.J. Sternberg (Ed.), Handbook of creativity (pp. 339-350). New York: Cambridge University Press.
Rothenberg, A. (1996). The janusian process in scientific creativity. Creativity Research Journal, 9, 207-231.