Personality traits and creativity

Legendary innovators and creators all seem to have a specific combination of two personality traits which multiplies interests and the enjoyment of learning new things.

Psychologists John Cacioppo, Richard Petter et al identified these two traits as Openness to Experience and Need for Cognition.

People with a deep and wide knowledge base have these traits. The wide knowledge base is down to Openness to Experience, the degree someone is keen to consider new ideas and opportunities. Others have a preference to stick to familiar ideas, activities and routines. This is related to creativity, unsurprisingly.

It is similar to the message in Ken Robinson’s TED talk “Do schools kill creativity?” which emphasises mistakes are necessary in order to be creative.  People are often afraid to try something new when they are used to being good at things; they don’t want to find out they can’t do it or they are disappointed in their lack of natural talent. So they would give up instead.



Being open to new experiences requires tenacity and bravery, to try and do everything however silly it may look, however rubbish you might be, just for the hell of it.

The hell of it is down to the other personality trait, a high Need for Cognition. To be creative is to do something not done before, and you need to know a lot about a field before you can be creative in that field. Creative painters need to know a lot about art, creative scientists need to be skilled in science and writers need to know the rules to break them.

To know a lot, and purse this knowledge, it is important to enjoy thinking. Learning new things is difficult and people who like thinking will stick at it long enough to acquire good knowledge. Some people are driven to think deeply – too deeply, they might be told – while others avoid situations which require a lot of thinking. People with a high Need for Cognition routinely learn, think and muse about new things, simply because they enjoy the process.

The combination of high Openness to Experience and Need for Cognition is powerful. Creativity often comes from drawing analogies between bodies of knowledge and a deep and wide knowledge base is required for such connections.

People with this combination learn about a wide range of topics and purse them in depth. They will watch a documentary and then follow up with reading, starting conversations about it and asking lots of questions to make sure they understand. They can approach problems from a wide variety of perspectives, and this is where creative solutions are found. They can bring out the specialist expertise of individuals in a group and see how it inter-relates to solve a problem.

It might be geeky and un-cool, but I genuinely enjoy this, and I’m sure plenty of you do too.

Of course, if you’re not naturally high in these traits, you can develop habits of creativity. Seek out new experiences and open your life to opportunities, coincidences and bravery in speaking to people you’ve never spoken to before and going to events you’ve never been to before. Set aside time to focus on learning something new – and keep at it. The broader, and deeper, you knowledge base, the more creative you can be.