Understanding Creativity #1: Introduction and Associative Theory


This article is part of a series of short articles surrounding the study of creativity and the ways the relevant theories can be interpreted to understand and enhance our own creativity. The theories and ideas discussed are presented in no particular order and merely provide a basic grounding in the core concepts on which to build upon.

Creativity is currently a hot topic in Psychology and generates vast amounts of research on all manner of related topics. One of the issues researchers and those interested in enhancing their own creativity is that there is no actual definition of what exactly creativity is, what is or isn’t creative or what it means to be creative. For this reason research often focuses on one particular school of thought to help make the ideas manageable. Generally speaking the most prominent of these theory groups are: creative cognition, which looks at the cognitive mechanisms we use to generate creative ideas; Psychometric theories, which try to quantify creativity and test its robustness; Confluence models, which try to combine everything into a unified model; and lastly problem solving and procedural approaches, which break creativity into stages we must go through to solve particular problems.

In this series we will use the commonly cited working definition of creativity that states: for something to be creative it must be both effective and novel. This is a good definition to use when discussing creativity from an artistic or technological context as much of what we do in that realm is focused on creating some kind of end product.

Associative Theory

Associative theory was developed in 1962 by Sarnoff Mednick and falls into the cognitive group of theories as the theory primarily focuses on three types of creativity: serendipitous, similarity and mediation, which refer to cognitive mechanisms we use to generate new ideas. Mednick defined creativity as:

‘…the forming of associative elements into new combinations which either meet specified requirements or are in some way useful […] the more mutually remote the elements of the new combination, the more creative the process or solution’. (Mednick, 1962). 

An important aspect to understand from Mednick’s definition is that creativity arises from the combination of remote elements. An example therefore would be the combination of computer networks and libraries to create Google, a library of sorts housed in a world wide network accessible through personal computers.

As mentioned above Mednick proposed three distinct types of creativity into which any idea would likely fall. Serendipitous creativity occurs when a combination appears by chance (Example: Larry Page was eating his lunch next to a server and BANG he comes up with the idea for Google). Similarity refers to the combination of concepts which may appear remote but do actually share some similarities which prompt us to try combining them (Example: Larry likes libraries and notices that the internet is one big unorganised collection of knowledge and so invents Google to organise the internet, just like a library). Finally, Mediation occurs when we make combinations of completely remote elements using a mediatory concept that has links to both of the initial ideas (Example: Larry is inspired to combine the concept of ‘the internet’ and libraries because his second name is Page and both libraries and the internet have pages in them).

** DISCLAIMER: I have no idea how Larry Page and Co came up with the idea of Google but i’m betting it definitely had something to do with eating lunch near a server. ** 

How is this all useful?

Although the Associative theory isn’t the most robust theory, considering that there is about as much research proving its validity as against it, it is still useful as a means to proactively engage in creativity by perhaps trying a new approach. Seek out the similarities in remote ideas or perhaps pick two completely random concepts and find something that relates to both of them. This can be especially useful if facing creative block or simply for trying out new directions and styles as it forces you to generate start point in the form of two remote concepts and to work from there.


The original Mednick paper can be found here. Check it out for a bit more explanation and depth.

Check back soon for future instalments in this series.