Dual Pathway to Creativity and the Importance of Detail-Oriented Thinking

Dual pathway to creativity in a nutshell: Although creativity is traditionally equated with intuitive and associative thinking which capitalizes on cognitive flexibility and mental-set breaking, the dual pathway to creativity recognizes an alternative pathway based on detail-oriented and analytical thinking which leads to creative ideas within narrower categories.

Creativity in the popular understanding is often juxtaposed with rational and analytical thinking. This was neatly expressed by a French mathematician and theoretical physicist Henri Poincaré when he stated that “it is by logic that we prove, but by intuition that we discover.”

Psychological research traditionally has likewise considered creativity as nearly synonymous with intuitive and associative thinking. Analytical thinking is considered important for creativity only because of its role in critical evaluation and analysis of ideas, but its role is supposedly minimal in creative generation, the very process of producing ideas.

In reality, however, creative generation sometimes works better with deliberate and analytical as opposed to intuitive thinking, as could be seen from many creative ideas in science, business, and other non-artistic fields which were produced primarily through deliberate and detail-oriented thinking. And over the last decade, this fact is also slowly being recognized in creativity research.

Dutch psychologists Carsten De Dreu, Matthijs Baas, and Bernard Nijstad originally proposed a dual-pathway to creativity model to explain how different moods influence creativity. Their original model explains that creativity is enhanced through either activating positive moods or activating negative moods.[1] Activating positive moods, such as happiness or joy, enhance creativity through cognitive flexibility and mental-set breaking. On the other hand, negative activating moods, such as anger, enhance creativity through cognitive perseverance, which leads to more analytical thinking and detail-oriented processing, thus enhancing creative generation within narrower categories. (In contrast, deactivating moods reduce creativity; this applies to both positive deactivating moods, such as calmness or relaxation, and negative deactivating moods, such as sadness.) Although this model was originally proposed to explain the link between moods and creativity, it is not limited to that topic, so in general, we can think of two pathways to creativity – one based on intuitive thinking which capitalizes on cognitive flexibility and mental-set breaking, and the other pathway which relies on detail-oriented processing, thus leading to creativity within a narrower field.

Other studies nicely illustrate how detail-oriented and analytical thinking might lead to superior creative problem solving. One example of a creativity technique which is heavily based on analytical thinking is the generic-parts technique, formulated by University of Massachusetts Amherst researcher Tony McCaffrey.[2] To illustrate how it works, consider the two steel-rings problem:

You have two steel-rings and you need to fasten them to make a figure 8 out of them. You can use only a candle, a match, and a 2-inch cube of steel.

Most people start thinking that the solution is to melt the wax of the candle to bond the rings, but the melted wax is not strong enough to hold the rings together. The solution lies in noticing that the wick of the candle can be used as a string to tie the rings together. People struggle to solve this problem intuitively, but the generic-parts technique shows that it can be successfully tackled with analytical thinking. The key is to ask continuously two simple questions: (1) can an object be decomposed further, and (2) does a description of a particular part imply a use. So, for example, with the candle, you would ask if it could be broken further down; you would mentally break down the candle into the wax and the wick; the wick could be further decomposed into strings, and the strings could be further decomposed into long fibrous strands. By asking the second question—whether a particular part can be used to solve your problem—you would probably notice that the string could be used to tie the rings together.

Of course, this is useful not only for finding creative ways to tie steel-rings together. A lot of successful real-world innovation depends heavily on such analytic process of breaking down a product, service, or process into its components and rearranging, eliminating, or reducing them, or adding other elements, and so forth.

Moreover, such analytical thinking can be used equally well to tackle insight problems that have been traditionally assigned to the exclusive jurisdiction of intuitive thinking. A 2012 study by McCaffrey showed that the generic-parts technique can successfully solve classic insight problems. The subjects using this technique solved nearly 70% more of the typical insight problems than the control group did.

Overall, deliberate and detail-oriented thinking is often invaluable for creativity, but of course it is unlikely that either pathway to creativity is superior across-the-board. More likely, some problems will be better tackled with intuitive thinking which capitalizes on cognitive flexibility and mental-set breaking, while other problems may be better approached with rational and analytical thinking. And this probably applies equally well to tackling different aspects of the same problem.

Also, the effectiveness of analytical thinking for creativity may depend on routine problem-solving style. For example, some limited research suggests that people become more creative when they use their non-typical problem-solving style.[3] So people who usually rely on intuitive problem solving will be more creative when using rational problem solving; conversely, people who routinely prefer rational problem solving may be more creative when they try intuitive problem solving. More generally, all of this ties in nicely with a more basic speculation by these researchers that creativity increases when we continuously shift gears between intuitive and rational thinking.


[1] Carsten K. W. De Dreu, Matthijs Baas, and Bernard A. Nijstad.  Hedonic Tone and Activation Level in the Mood–Creativity Link: Toward a Dual Pathway to Creativity Model. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94, 739–756 (2008). DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.94.5.739.

[2] Tony McCaffrey. Innovation Relies on the Obscure: A Key to Overcoming the Classic Problem of Functional Fixedness. Psychological Science, 23, 215–218 (2012). DOI: 10.1177/0956797611429580.

[3] Erik Dane, Markus Baer, Michael G. Pratt, and Greg R. Oldham. Rational Versus Intuitive Problem Solving: How Thinking “Off the Beaten Path” Can Stimulate Creativity. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 5, 3–12 (2011). DOI: 10.1037/a0017698.