Creative Problem Solving Versus Creative Display

Creativity research has focused much more on creative problemsolving than on creative courtship display. It is easy to envision natural selection favoring animals who solve their survival problems more creatively. Psychologists tend to think of Wolfgang Kohler's experiments from the 1920s, in which chimpanzees figured out how to stand on a box and use a stick to knock some bananas down from a height so they could eat them. Such examples lead us to think of creativity being favored for its survival payoffs, and this focus is reinforced by research funding priorities. Creativity research justifies its costs as a way to discover how people might improve their ability to solve technical problems. Corporations want more creative thinkers so they can patent more innovations, not so their workers can attract better mates. The problem-solving viewpoint has been reinforced by the mass of biographical research on the creativity of great scientists and inventors.

Many creativity researchers suggest that an idea's creativity should be measured by two criteria: novelty and utility. Utility concerns the idea's appropriateness for solving a well-defined problem. Novelty is somewhat incidental, reflecting the difficulty of solving that problem and thus how rarely people have solved it in the past. In this problem-solving perspective, human creativity is subject to the same bottom line as R & D divisions in a corporation. The blue-sky dreaming has to yield dividends sooner or later: novelty cannot be justified as an end in itself, only as a means of finding otherwise elusive solutions. Cognitive psychology is especially concerned with problem-solving. Since Herbert Simon's work on artificial intelligence and problem-solving in the 1950s, cognitive psychology has gradually taken over creativity research. Creativity is sometimes seen as little more than a way to solve slightly harder-than-average problems.

It is possible, but rather dreary to see the world as a mixture of problems and solutions. One could even speak of courtship as a problem and displays as a solution. But this problem-oriented viewpoint rather misses the point of human creativity and indeed of courtship display in general.

Consider the creativity demanded by slapstick comedy. The great physical comedians of the silent-film era, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, were not in the business of solving problems. On the contrary. Their genius lay in taking unproblematic everyday acts, and turning them into elaborately inventive displays of clumsiness. The climbing of a ladder became an opportunity for exploring the dozens of inappropriate ways in which a human body can interact with a ladder and a floor. Comedy depends on showing how many ways something can go wrong—on violating expectations, not solving problems.

Perhaps in considering the evolution of creativity, we should focus more on humor and less on technical invention. I think that neophilic laughter rather than technophilic profit was the fitness payoff that mattered in the evolution of creativity. Laughter may seem a rather weak thread from which to hang such a grand ornament as human creativity, yet laughter is an important part of human nature. It is universal within our species, manifest in distinct facial and vocal expressions. It emerges spontaneously during childhood, and is deeply pleasurable. It shows all the hallmarks of a psychological adaptation.

An appreciation of humor is an important part of mate choice too. One of the strongest and most puzzling findings from evolutionary psychology research has been the value that people around the world place on a good sense of humor. Indeed, this is one of the few human traits important enough to have its own abbreviation (GSOH) in personal ads. Perhaps we can finally understand why a GSOH is so frequently requested and so frequently advertised by singles seeking mates. A capacity for comedy reveals a capacity for creativity It plays upon our intense neophilia. It circumvents our tendencies towards boredom. Creativity is a reliable indicator of intelligence, energy, youth, and proteanism. Humor is attractive, and that is why it evolved.

In his 1964 book The Act of Creation, Arthur Koestler struggled in vain to find a survival function for creative wit, humor, and laughter. He wrote:

What is the survival value of the involuntary, simultaneous contraction of fifteen facial muscles associated with certain noises which are often irrepressible? Laughter is a reflex, but unique in that it serves no apparent biological purpose; one might call it a luxury reflex. Its only utilitarian function, as far as one can see, is to provide temporary relief from utilitarian pressures. On the evolutionary level where laughter arises, an element of frivolity seems to creep into a humorless universe governed by the laws of thermodynamics and the survival of the fittest.

Looking for survival value in a sexually attractive biological "luxury" is arguably the most typical mistake of 20th-century theorizing about human evolution. This book has repeatedly celebrated this "element of frivolity" that sexual selection introduces into the cosmos. Humor—the wit to woo—is one of its most delightful products.

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