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Postformal thinking and creativity among late adolescents: a post-Piagetian approach.

Most studies on creativity have originated in personality and educational psychology, whereas the relationship between cognitive development and creativity has received little attention. Few studies about creative people have focused on individual cognitive development.

Two major approaches have been used to study creativity. The psychological measurement approach considers creativity as an individual ability that may be conceptualized with descriptive theories. This approach mainly evaluates individual differences in creativity and creative performance. The other approach focuses on describing the creative process, with the aim of understanding the internal processes of creativity. However, it fails to address developmental changes in creativity. Lacking an ontological genesis for creativity, studies in the cultivation of creativity have found only the necessary factors. Thus, studies based on these two approaches may offer examples of highly creative people and discuss their characteristics or describe their major thought processes. However, a better understanding of the factors involved in creativity requires a developmental approach that considers the origins of creative development (Ross, 1977).

Understanding how cognitive development affects creative functioning is central to the developmental study of creativity. A post-Piagetian perspective on cognitive development in late adolescence suggests that the epistemic level of late adolescence develops from Piaget's (1980) final cognitive developmental stage (formal operations), leading to postformal thinking (Arlin, 1984; Koplowitz, 1984; Kramer & Woodruff, 1986; Perry, 1970; Rybash & Roodin, 1989). Results of tests of this theoretical proposal have been consistent with this view (Chiou, in press; Kahlbaugh & Kramer, 1995; Kramer & Melchior, 1990; Kramer, Kahlbaugh, & Goldston, 1992; Sebby & Papini, 1994). Kramer (1983) proposed three themes running through postformal thinking: (a) awareness of the relativistic nature of knowledge, (b) acceptance of contradiction, and (c) integration of contradiction into the dialectical whole. Thus, "postformal" thinking is considered to be relativistic and dialectical in nature.

In this study, we considered the development of postformal thinking at one particular point in life--late adolescence--and its relationship to creative growth. In particular, we investigated the ways in which postformal thinking development in late adolescence might facilitate creative performance.

The Essence of Creativity

Although creativity has yet to be defined, researchers considering the phenomenon from different perspectives commonly agree on a number of characteristics of the creative process and creative work products. The first characteristic is novelty, and most definitions of creativity start here. Being novel, atypical, or unusual are the dimensions most frequently measured on creativity tests (Guilford, 1967; Torrance, 1962).

Another dimension of creative performance is value. In addition to being unusual, the creative response needs to fulfill criteria of usefulness and effectiveness in problem solving. The value dimension stresses quality in the creative response. For example, to the three dimensions of flexibility, fluency, and originality suggested by Guilford (1967), Torrance (1962) added elaboration, which is essentially value. Both elaboration and value stress that creative response measure merits cannot be limited to quantity, but must also include quality (see Amabile, 1983, and Rothenberg and Hausman, 1976, for a related idea).

Relationship between Postformal Thinking and Creativity

Formal or postformal thinking are two possible modes of cognitive development in the developmental stages of late adolescence (Kahlbaugh & Kramer, 1995; Kramer et al., 1992). Formal thinking allows the late adolescent to manipulate logical relationships among abstract propositions, think about logically possible states of affairs, and use the experimental method to test hypotheses (Benack, 1984; Labouvie-Vief, 1982). The formal operational thinker solves problems by modeling them as "closed systems" that are made up of a finite number of possibilities (Basseches, 1984; King, Kitchener, Davison, Parker, & Wood, 1983). When late adolescents approach a problem through formal thinking, they already hold some systematic framework from which to consider the problem. This framework specifies a finite number of variables to be considered and defines other aspects of the problem as irrelevant to the solution (Piaget, 1950, 1980). Formal thinkers expect to produce a single right answer that will hold in all similar circumstances and across time. Contradictions (inconsistent observations or disagreement by other people) are regarded as a sign that something is wrong with the solution (Kahlbaugh, 1989). Hence, formal operational analysis does not appear to describe adequately the creative aspects of evolving thought, i.e., of theory creation rather than theory testing. Creativity in science and other fields based on formal analysis appears to require cognitive operations that retain the power of systematic thinking but also transcend its limitations. Thus, formalist thinking is in opposition to the novelty of creativity. In short, formal thinking cannot create unlimited possibilities because a closed system can generate only a limited number of relationships (Sinnott, 1981, 1989).

In relativistic thinking, which is a particular mode of postformal thinking, specific beliefs and values are part of larger thought systems (Kahlbaugh, 1989; Kramer & Melchior, 1990; Kramer et al., 1992). Thus, differences of opinion can exist, and one answer is not "right" and the others "wrong," because problems can be viewed from many perspectives. This awareness of multiple systematic ways of viewing reality renders an individual's own view more permeable and more influenced by other perspectives that may define the problem in fundamentally different ways (Basseches, 1984). The tendency of relativistic thinkers to be aware of and look to perspectives other than their own should be a source of greater diversity and novelty. The criterion for creative value in relativistic thinking lies in the ecological validity of the knowledge products (Sinnott, 1984, 1989). With its focus on utility and pragmatism, relativistic thinking can not only facilitate the emergence of novelty but can also put value on the creative artifact and ensure its utility and validity.

In dialectical thinking, the other mode of postformal thinking (Basseches, 1980, 1984), individuals understand their thoughts to be in a process of evolution (Basseches, 1989). Whereas formal thinkers tend to change their ideas only if the old view is "in error," dialectical thinkers see changes in thinking as natural, expectable, and valuable. Thus, a dialectical view of knowledge encourages individuals to willingly move away from past points of view and to perform the "set-breaking" of "leaping away" shift from old traditions that is viewed as characteristic of creative thinkers. Furthermore, the dialectical thinker sees the evolution of knowledge as resulting from contradictions within a thought system or between a thought system and outside factors (Manzo, 1992). For the formal thinker, contradictions are signs of trouble, irritants to be ignored where possible, and eliminated when necessary (Kramer, 1989). In contrast, the dialectical thinker considers that contradictions play a key role in intellectual growth. A dialectical epistemology sees contradictions as opportunities to be sought out and developed. Finally, dialectical thinking directs the individual to resolve contradictions by means of higher order syntheses that create new, more complex systems, encompassing the old contradictory elements (Sternberg, 2001). For(researchers who understand creativity to involve the holding together or relating of contradictory ideas or frameworks, as in Rotenberg's "Janusian thinking" (1976) or Koestler's idea of "bisociation" (1964), dialectical thinking serves as a "roadmap" for the creative process.

In general, postformal thinking gives both cognitive and affective support to viewing these processes as central to creativity. On the cognitive side, postformal thinking may be seen as providing a set of directions to thought, such as considering the problem from multiple perspectives, expecting one's way of thinking to change, paying close attention to contradictions and creating ways to relate and synthesize ideas that seem to be in opposition or to be inconsistent. On the affective side, postformal thinking facilitates an understanding of how knowledge evolves and helps to support the emotional tensions of the creative process, which include holding opposing views simultaneously, sustaining uncertainty, breaking away from established ways of seeing things, and tolerating ambiguity.


Participants and Procedure

The study participants was comprised of 386 college students (191 females and 195 males, 19-26 years old; M = 22.03, SD = 1.80). of these, 97 (25%) were freshmen, 100 (26%) sophomores, 97 (25%)juniors, and 94 (24%) seniors or non-graduating seniors. Participants were stratified into three demographic areas: northern, central, and southern Taiwan. Participants were asked to complete questionnaires about their cognitive development, as measured by the Social Paradigm Belief Inventory (SPBI; Kramer et al., 1992), and creativity, as measured by the Divergent Thinking Test (DTT; Lin & Wang, 1994).


Cognitive development. SPBI, developed by Kramer et al. (1992), was used to evaluate the cognitive developmental levels of participants. The original SPBI was a 27-item, forced-choice inventory, wherein subjects chose one of three statements (formal, relativistic, or dialectical) with which they most agreed. The following is a sample item: (a) Change in unnatural. This is because people need traditional values to correct society's problems, and deviating from such values would be destructive (formal thinking statement); (b) Change is natural. This is because nothing lasts forever, and each new generation brings its own changes (relativistic thinking statement); (c) Change is natural. This is because there will always be problems whose solutions may dramatically change old ways of thinking (dialectical thinking statement). SPBI showed internal consistencies ranging from .60 to .84 (M = .72, SD = .11), good test-retest reliability, points of connection to an in-depth interview measure of worldview beliefs, and both convergent and discriminate validity) (see Kramer et al., 1992, for details).

According to Kramer et al. (1992), the highest z-score method was applied to classify participants into formal relativistic, or dialectical thinking groups. Specifically, to obtain a single "stage score," which typically produces a definitive and discriminating classification, the frequencies of responses to each statement were converted into z-scores, and each subject was classified based on their highest attained z-scores. The z-score method classified 155 participants as formal thinkers and 231 as postformal thinkers (161 relativistic and 70 dialectical thinkers).

Creativity. To measure creativity, we used the Divergent Thinking Test (DTT) in the Creativity Assessment Packet, as modified by Lin and Wang (1994). The DTT is composed of 12 unfinished drawings to be completed within a specified time (20 minutes). This test seeks primarily to measure an individual's creative performance and includes six dimensions: fluency, openness, flexibility, originality, elaboration, and naming.

The inter-rater reliability for all DTT scores ranged between .88 and .99, indicating satisfactory consistency among the raters. In test-retest reliability, the correlation coefficients of the six dimensions ranged between .44 and .68. Cronbach's alpha coefficients measuring internal consistency ranged between .45 and .87. For scale validation, the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking (Torrance, 1966) were used as a criterion test. Correlation coefficients for concurrent validity were statistically significant for all age groups, with correlation coefficients ranging between .26 and .55. DTT was implemented in a group format. Higher scores in each of the dimensions indicated higher creative performance. Possible scores for fluency and flexibility ranged from 0 to 12. Possible scores for openness, originality, elaboration, and naming ranged from 0 to 24.


Correlation Analysis

Table 1 shows the means and standard deviations of participant responses to the tests, as well as correlations among the measures. Participant scores for the three kinds of cognitive thinking were negatively correlated: r = -.51 between formal and relativistic thinking, r = -.42 between formal and dialectical thinking, and r = -.41 between relativistic and dialectical thinking. The results indicated that SPBI showed satisfactory discriminant validity and further revealed that the three-choice forced-choice SPBI version could distinguish the preeminent and preferable thinking mode used by each participant from among the three levels of cognitive development.

With respect to correlations among various levels of cognitive development and creativity, the formal thinking scores of participants were negatively correlated with the six dimensions of creativity. More importantly, however, both relativistic and dialectical thinking (i.e., postformal thinking modes) scores were positively correlated with three creative dimensions. These findings support our predictions and suggest that postformal thinking may promote creativity.

Cognitive Group Differences in Creativity

The z-score method, which divided participants among the three levels of cognitive development based on their highest attained z-score (Kramer et al., 1992), placed 155 participants in the formal thinking group and 231 in the postformal thinking group. Planned contrasts analyzed by t-tests were conducted to compare the mean differences between the two groups in six dimensions of creativity (see Table 2).

The t-tests revealed a consistent pattern of differences between the two cognitive groups. Postformal thinking group participants scored significantly higher than did the formal thinking group in all dimensions of creativity (p < .001; t(384) = 9.32, for fluency, t(384) = 43.40 for openness, t(384) = 27.47 for flexibility, t(384) = 49.37 for originality, t(384) = 40.71 for elaboration, and t(384) = 29.79 for naming). In addition, a one-way MANOVA was conducted to examine the holistic difference in creativity between the two cognitive thinking groups. Results supported the t-test findings, indicating that creativity in the postformal thinking group was significantly higher than in the formal thinking group (F(6, 379) = 707.24, p < .001).

Multiple Discriminant Analysis

Multiple discriminant analysis (MDA) may allow us to determine whether a participant's performance in the six creativity dimensions (fluency, openness, flexibility, originality, elaboration, and naming) effectively identifies the participant's membership in a cognitive development group (group variable: 0 = formal thinking group, 1 = postformal thinking group). For cross-validation, the total sample was randomly classified into either an "analysis sample" (n = 193) or "holdout sample" (n = 193). In the analysis sample, 71 participants (37%) belonged to the formal thinking group and 122 (63%) to the postformal thinking group.

MDA with the simultaneous method (see Table 3) indicated that the linear combination of the six dimensions of creativity could effectively differentiate the two cognitive groups. The derived discriminant function is: y (discriminant z score) = -30.35 + (-0.61) fluency + (-0.08) openness + (-0.86) flexibility + 1.36 originality + 4.25 elaboration + (-2.54) naming, in which Wilks' [lambda] = .07, [chi square](6) = 489.77, p < .001. The hit rate of correct classification in the analysis sample was 99%, which was more than 25% above the proportional chance criterion ([0.37.sup.2] + [0.63.sup.2] = 54%, Press's Q = 189.02, df = 1, p < .001). The hit rate of correct classification proportion in the holdout analysis sample was 98%, which was also more than 25% above the chance criterion. These findings indicate that the discriminant MDA validity was satisfactory (Hair, Anderson, Tatham, & Black, 1998). Furthermore, discriminant coefficients are subject to multicollinearity; the discriminant loadings of the variables that refer to correlations between discriminating variables and standardized canonical discriminant functions (i.e., shared variance) are more appropriate for understanding the contribution of each discriminant variable to the discriminant function (Hair et al., 1998). In the analysis sample data, the discriminant loadings of the six discriminant variables were all significantly positive at p < .01, indicating that participants who scored higher on the six dimensions of creativity also exhibited a higher likelihood of being in the postformal thinking group.


Correlation analysis found that formal thinking and the six creative performance dimensions were negatively correlated. These results support our original hypothesis, which held that formal thinking is a single, closed system of cognitive transformations that do not relate to creative performance. However, because SPBI is a forced-choice test, a high score in one mode of thinking necessarily leads to a lower score in another mode. Therefore, the negative correlation between formal thinking and creative performance could have been strengthened by the measurement, and the two variables could have a slight negative correlation or no correlation at all. With respect to the relationship between postformal thinking and creativity, both relativistic and dialectical thinking were positively correlated with all six creative performance dimensions. The correlation analyses supported the inferences discussed in the literature review, indicating that postformal thinking may be related to creativity and could facilitate the development of natural forms of creativity.

In terms of creativity, the postformal thinkers consistently outscored the formal thinkers in all six dimensions of creativity. The group difference results were consistent with Pearson's correlation analysis results, indicating that postformal thinking and creative performance may exhibit parallel developmental relationships. In addition, multiple discriminant analysis showed that six creative dimensions could be distinguished between the two groups of cognitive thinkers. However, because this study used a cross-sectional design, we could not determine the direction of causality between cognitive development and creativity. The influence of postformal thinking in late adolescence on creativity could be a necessary, but not sufficient, condition. If so, the cognitive development of late adolescents who exhibit high creative performance should be postformal thinking.

Future studies may employ a cross-lagged panel design (Cook & Campbell, 1979), in which postformal thinking and creative performance would be tested at two different points in time to explore the causal relations between cognitive development and creativity. The two separate testing times must be distant enough to reveal significant developmental change. A cross-examination of the panel coefficients might determine the causal relations between postformal thinking development and creativity in late adolescence. In addition, we might adopt a developmental approach to explore other questions central to creativity in late adolescence. For example, does the development of other realms (affective development, acquisition of expertise in specific domains, wisdom) also affect creative functioning and performance? How does adolescent creativity differ from creativity in adulthood or childhood? What experiences contribute to the maturation of creativity in late adolescence?

Kahlbaugh and Kramer (1995) employed the Likert version of SPBI and Kramer's Paradigm Interview (KPI; Kramer, 1990) to explore the relationship between relativism and identity crisis in young adulthood. However, KPI and SPBI scores did not correspond, and the association between relativism (SPBI) and identity was not replicated in interviews. This discrepancy between measures suggests that the method employed to assess cognitive development is critical. In the present study, only the forced-choice version of SPBI was used. To avoid a mono-method bias that might threaten construct validity, we may in the future employ multiple formats or methods to assess cognitive development in late adolescence. To draw unambiguous conclusions from interviews, the amount of verbal output must be controlled or systematically tested.

In conclusion, our findings support the appropriateness of employing post-Piagetian genetic epistemological and constructivist perspectives to explore the relationship between cognitive development and creativity among late adolescents. Our study supported the possible relationship of postformal thinking to creativity and suggests that cognitive development and creativity are related in late adolescence. The development of postformal thinking would facilitate the development of mature forms of creativity because postformal thinking tends to view the process of thinking as creative. In short, postformal thinking emphasizes and encourages factors that have been described as important to the essence of creativity.

The pedagogical implications of this study are based on post-Piagetian genetic epistemology. Our results suggest a developmentally parallel relationship between postformal thinking and overall creative performance. In teaching creativity the post-Piagetian constructivist epistemological position emphasizes cognitive development as cognitive reorganization (Piaget, 1980). New forms of creative activity are based on old forms and are generated by reorganizing prior forms and using them to expand previous creative activities, leading to creative evolution. Thus, basing the teaching of creativity on Piagetian genetic epistemology would provide adolescent creators with activities designed to develop novel and valuable epistemic views. Thus, any teaching activity aimed at raising the level of creative thinking must occur within an individual's "zone of potential creation," as Piagetian pedagogy holds that subsequent knowledge must be based on prior knowledge and is limited by the basic assumptions of prior knowledge (Kramer, 1989; Piaget, 1985). The zone of potential creation refers to an adaptable area of creative activity within the learner's current stage of creative thinking. Educators can also provide activities stressing postformal operations to stimulate mature forms of creativity. For example, a relativistic or dialectical view of objects and events could foster awareness of novelty and relationships. A postformal view of knowledge is likely to foster habits of thought that promote set-breaking, attention to contradictions, and attempts at synthesis, all of which are important features of the creative process. The development of a coherent metasystematic perspective may provide the cognitive operations that are necessary to consciously manage an interrelated, evolving system, one that Gruber (1984) suggests is characteristic of mature, sustained creative efforts. Finally, educators should encourage students to reflect on the transformation of their own categories of creative activity in order to better understand that forms of thinking change, and to recognize key processes in reorganization.

Using the results of this study as an exemplar, educators or researchers can further explore the relationship between cognitive development and creative thinking in different disciplines, Research into individual cognitive and creative thinking development could provide new insights into creativity education through the use of a fresh perspective, one that differs from psychometric or creative process approaches. A structural-developmental approach allows developmental psychology and creative thinking pedagogy to create a dialogue, one that could lead to creative disciplinary integration; it could also open the door to more pro-active approaches to the study of creativity, approaches that could go beyond merely marveling at, or measuring, creativity.


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Pai-Lu Wu, Center for Teacher Education, Cheng Shiu University, Taiwan, Republic of China.

Requests for reprints should be sent to Wen-Bin Chiou, Center for Teacher Education, National Sun Yat-Sen University, 70, Lien-Hal Rd., Kaohsiung 804, Taiwan, R.O.C. E-mail:
Table 1
Means and Standard Deviations of Study Measures

 Measures M SD 1. 2. 3.

1. Dialectical Thinking 10.48 3.16 --
2. Relativistic Thinking 12.51 3.41 -0.41 --
3. Formal Thinking 14.26 3.12 -0.42 -0.51 --
4. Fluency 10.45 0.91 0.37 0.12 -0.48
5. Openness 15.21 1.78 0.42 0.21 -0.62
6. Flexibility 8.06 1.37 0.39 0.19 -0.58
7. Originality 15.18 1.68 0.44 0.21 -0.63
8. Elaboration 14.81 1.73 0.42 0.18 -0.59
9. Naming 15.32 1.78 0.39 0.14 -0.52

 Measures 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9.

1. Dialectical Thinking
2. Relativistic Thinking
3. Formal Thinking
4. Fluency --
5. Openness 0.57 --
6. Flexibility 0.60 0.90 --
7. Originality 0.56 0.95 0.92 --
8. Elaboration 0.59 0.97 0.92 0.96 --
9. Naming 0.56 0.92 0.88 0.92 0.98 --

Note. All correlations were significant at p < .01.

Table 2
Means and Standard Deviations of Two Cognitive Thinking Groups

 Formal Thinking Group Postformal Thinking Group

 (n=155) (n=231)

Creativity M SD M SD

Fluency 9.98 0.84 10.77 0.80
Openness 13.24 0.69 16.54 0.76
Flexibility 6.70 0.76 8.97 0.82
Originality 13.28 0.54 16.46 0.67
Elaboration 12.91 0.62 16.08 0.83
Naming 13.52 0.83 16.54 1.06

Note. The possible scores of fluency and flexibility ranged from 0
to 12, whereas those of openness, originality, elaboration, and
naming ranged from 0 to 24.

Table 3
MDA of Six Dimensions of Creativity among the Cognitive Thinking Groups

Discriminant Variables Standardized Discriminant Discriminant

 Coefficients Loadings

Fluency -0.50 0.71
Openness -0.06 0.64
Flexibility -0.69 0.60
Originality 0.81 0.43
Elaboration 3.05 0.39
Naming -2.40 0.13
Hit Rate
 Analysis Sample (n =193) 99%
 Holdout Sample (n =193) 97%

Note. For the analysis sample, the formal thinking group consisted of
77 participants, and the postformal thinking group of 122 participants.
All discriminant loadings were significant alp <. 01.
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Author:Wu, Pai-Lu; Chiou, Wen-Bin
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Date:Jun 22, 2008
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