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Toward an Improved Understanding of Creativity within People: The Level-Style Distinction
By: Scott G. Isaksen and K. Brian Dorval, Center for Studies in Creativity, Buffalo State College


      The purpose of this chapter is to lay out the creativity level-style distinction and to identify some of the productive implications of such a new dimension for creativity research and practice.  The distinction will be defined and the historical emphasis on creativity level will be outlined.  Background on the style dimension will be summarized along with how this new approach has been utilized by creativity researchers.  Implications resulting from the level-style distinction will be identified and discussed.  Finally, conclusions and recommendations for future inquiry will be shared.

The Creativity Level-Style Distinction

      When level is the focus or concern, it is assumed that we are dealing with a concept linked with ability, capacity, potential, or competence.  Creative level refers to how well one uses their creative capacity or how much of these abilities individuals possess.  When dealing with style as the main issue, the emphasis is on modality, preference, propensity, manner or form.  Creative style refers to how people prefer to use their creativity.

      The sharpest distinction drawn within this area of inquiry has been provided by Kirton (1987 & 1989).  He asserted that the adaption-innovation theory of cognitive style is conceptually independent from creative cognitive capacity, success in creative endeavors, learned procedures and techniques as well as coping behaviors. 

      Although it is the primary purpose of this chapter to point out the implications of this distinction for creativity in people, there may also be value in drawing such a distinction within the areas of the creative process, the creative product and the environment conducive to creativity.  When it comes to learning and applying Creative Problem Solving (CPS), for example, it might be useful to understand and separate the preferences people have for certain kinds of techniques from their ability to actually utilize them (Isaksen, 1988).  Some researchers have identified a style dimension within the broad area of creative products which is distinct from novelty and usefulness (Besemer & O'Quin, 1987).  It may also be fruitful to consider differences in modality, learning style, and preferences when attempting to understand the kind of environment necessary for the manifestation of creative behavior.  Different kinds of people may, in fact, need different kinds of situations within which to nurture their creativity.  It is also important to point out that the level-style distinction is only one of many potentially helpful aspects in understanding (and predicting) creative behavior.  There are many variables which need to be considered when attempting to understand creativity within people.

The Creativity Level-Style Distinction:The Historical Focus on Level

      The early historical perspective for creativity research was the focus on the identification of creative talent in people.  This search was primarily carried out by psychologists concerned with identifying individual differences in people.  For example, Willerman (1979) indicated that:

Perhaps there are no more fascinating subjects in the study of human individual differences than those who represent the highest extremes on measures of achievement.  Their extraordinary accomplishments earn for them a place in the pages of history, to be admired and revered.  For want of a better term, we shall call such individuals geniuses.  (p. 321)

      One of the earliest to inquire into the nature of genius was Galton (1869) who attempted to understand the hereditary determination of creative performances.  This early focus on genius and eminence provided for the emphasis on examining high levels of creativity in people.  Not only was the attention focused on high levels or degrees of performance, but the evaluation was done by others.  Thus, the high degree of creativity needed to be socially or culturally "conferred."

      If one wanted to study creativity in people, it seemed to make sense to identify those individuals who could clearly be called “creative.”  This approach seemed to mitigate the need to have a clearly defined set of answers regarding the necessary and sufficient conditions of creativity.  One of the reasons for this ambiguity is what Stein (1983) referred to as the homogenization of the use of the word “creative.”  He stated that the level emphasis of the concept of creativity began with the book of Genesis.  In this book, there is a clear hierarchy for Hebrew words used to describe creativity.  Certain words are reserved for God’s creativity, meaning the ex nihilo  type.  Other words refer to a more human type of making, forming, or combining.  Stein asserted that creativity researchers need to distinguish the level of the creativity they are examining in order to avoid a contempory "Tower of Babel" for creativity inquiry.

      Following the early interest in identifying those of exceptional creative talent and productivity, psychologists concerned with the identification of individual differences turned their attention to the testing of intelligence.  The search for measures of intelligence was related to the examination of characteristics that prepare some individuals for higher levels of performance.  The effort with regard to this type of mental testing was motivated by the need to make the best use of scarce educational resources (Thomson & Sharp, 1988). 

      Getzels (1987) described the history of the systematic investigation of creativity as occurring in three overlapping periods.  He explained that each period had a dominant but not exclusive focus; starting with genius, followed by giftedness and moving on to originality.  He indicated that creativity research has its contemporary history in the work of Galton (1869).

During the intervening more than hundred years, the inquiry shifted from the study of genius defined, as Galton had, by recognized achievement to the study of giftedness defined, as Terman (1925) had, by performance on an intelligence test, and from the study of giftedness to the study of originality, or more broadly creativity proper defined by a wide range of criteria including recognized achievement on a variety of mental tests.  (p. 88)

      The move from viewing giftedness as a function of IQ to investigating creativity as measured by divergent thinking and originality is documented by the literature surrounding the creativity-intelligence distinction (Getzels & Jackson, 1962; Torrance, 1960).  It is clearly beyond the scope of this chapter to thoroughly review the creativity-intelligence distinction.  It is, however, important to recognize that this early separation of the constructs of intelligence and creativity promulgated much inquiry into the nature of their relationship and confounded an already confusing situation.
      In terms of understanding creativity in people, the focus on level or degree was firmly established as the mainstream of inquiry.  Guilford’s address (1950) provided an enlightening example of this emphasis:

In its narrow sense, creativity refers to the abilities that are most characteristic of creative people.  Creative abilities determine whether the individual has the power to exhibit creative behavior to a noteworthy degree.  ...A creative pattern is manifest in creative behavior, which includes such activities as inventing, designing, contriving, composing, and planning.  People who exhibit these types of behavior to a marked degree are recognized as being creative.  (p. 444) (Emphasis ours)

      This emphasis on level was prevalent in the work of many creativity researchers.  MacKinnon’s work (1978) on identifying characteristics of creative architects provides an example.  In describing a few of the details and rationale for his study he reported:

It should be clear that any attempt to discover the distinguishing traits of creative persons can succeed only in so far as some group of qualified experts can agree upon who are the more and who are the less creative workers in a given field of endeavor.  In our study of architects, we began by asking a panel of experts—five professors of architecture, each working independently—to nominate the 40 most creative architects in the United States. (p. 56)

      The result of MacKinnon’s request was the development of a list of 86 architects, 64 of whom were invited to participate in the study.  Eleven editors of major architectural journals were asked to rate the creativity of these 64.  The forty nominated architects who actually participated in the study were also asked to rate the creativity of the 64 invited subjects (including themselves).  The editors’ rating correlated +.88 with the ratings of the architects, supporting the assumption that agreement about the relative creativeness of individual members of a specific group is possible.  This type of agreement was essential for an effective study of the traits of creative individuals.  Thus, the focus on high levels or degrees of creativity seemed to be a major thrust for the early researchers.

The Creativity Level-Style Distinction:Cognitive Styles

      An entirely different perspective on identifying human abilities breaks away from the traditional focus on level or degree.  This approach has been referred to as cognitive style and has its origin in the work on perception.  As Willerman (1979) indicated:

Our sensory apparatus and brain are like filters through which we apprehend our world.  Variations or defects in the filters affect what we notice or how we interpret events.  If different individuals apprehend the world differently it follows that they will also behave differently.  Research on these filter mechanisms and consequent behavioral differences has been of considerable  interest to a number of investigatory groups.  The field is broadly called cognitive styles and can be considered to exist on the borderline of intellectual function and personality.  (p. 232)

      The study of cognitive styles has also been seen as a subset of the discipline of cognitive psychology.  As Hayes (1978) indicated:

Cognitive psychology is a modern approach to the study of the processes by which people come to understand the world, such processes as memory, learning, comprehending language, problem solving, and creativity.  Cognitive psychology has been influenced by developments in linguistics, computer science, and, of course, by earlier work in philosophy and psychology.  (p.1)

      Within the field of cognitive psychology, there is considerable interest and effort being focused on the issue of cognitive styles.  Goldstein and Blackman (1978) discussed the nature of cognitive styles and provided the following definition:

Cognitive style is a hypothetical construct that has been developed to explain the process of mediation between stimuli and responses.  The term cognitive style refers to the characteristic ways in which individuals conceptually organize the environment. (p. 2)

      Guilford (1980) pointed out that what some call cognitive styles may be called cognitive controls, cognitive attitudes or cognitive system principles.  Messick (1984) adds cognitive preferences, structural properties of the cognitive system, preferred or habitual decision-making strategies, ingrained strategies of learning and knowledge acquisition, cognitive consequences of personality trends to the ever-increasing list of cognitive-style conceptualizations.  He reviewed the variety of definitions and proposed that all the alternative conceptions:

...imply that cognitive styles are consistent individual differences in ways of organizing and processing information and experience...tend to be pervasive and to cut across cognitive, intellective, personality, and interpersonal domains...suggest deeper roots in personality structure than is ordinarily implied by simply describing styles as characteristic modes of cognition.  For this reason, I prefer to conceptualize styles as characteristic self-consistencies in information processing that develop in congenial ways around underlying personality trends.  (p. 61)

      Cognitive styles have also been linked to cognitive strategies.  Styles seem to be more spontaneously applied without conscious deliberation; whereas strategies seem to be more a matter of choice and training.  The areas of learning strategies and metacognition are also intimately linked to these two concepts (Forrest-Pressley, MacKinnon & Waller, 1985; Weinstein & Mayer, 1986;  Wittrock, 1986).  
      There is also some interest in examining the relationship of cognitive styles to how individuals transfer their learning skills (Kirby, 1979).   These relationships suggests direct importance of cognitive style to the teaching-learning process.  Messick (1984) reported:

In comparison to styles, both strategy formulation and strategy choice are likely to be more amenable to change through training under varied conditions of learning.  It may thus be possible for individuals not only to learn to use a variety of specialized problem-solving and learning strategies that are consonant with their general cognitive styles, but also to learn to shift to less congenial strategies that are more effective for a particular task. (p. 62)

      There is a diversity of definitions, theories, constructs and instrumentation of cognitive styles.  Despite the lack of clarity, a few trends are discernible.  For example, nearly all these constructs of style seem to differentiate style from ability.  As Kogan (1976) reported: may prove helpful to distinguish cognitive styles from the more general ability domain.  Whereas the latter is concerned with level of performance–high (or accurate) at one extreme and low (or inaccurate) at the other–cognitive styles are purported to deal with the manner in which individuals acquire, store, retrieve, and transform information. (p. 105)

      Dispite the apparent and broad interest, there are also those who do not hold much value for the concept of cognitive styles given the apparent confusion between ability and modality and a lack of robust programs of research (Tiedemann, 1989).
      The separation of level from style may be a result of the basic differences in the historical development of the measurement methods for each approach.  For example, abilities generally tend to be unipolar traits while styles are bipolar.  Abilities are narrower in scope and are measured in terms of level of performance.  Abilities have their roots in mental test theory or models of human intelligence and have been closely aligned with educational applications.  Messick (1976) reported that psychologists concerned with abilities have generally developed measuring instruments for use with large groups in school settings through the use of paper and pencil tests.  As a result, ability measures appear more concerned with correctness or accuracy of response and level of overall achievement.  In contrast, styles are measured by degree of manner of performance.  Cognitive styles have their roots in the study of perception and personality.  These concepts are more closely tied with the laboratory or clinic.  Psychologists concerned with measuring cognitive styles have frequently used clinical tools or laboratory apparatus typically deriving scores from individual administration.  As a result, cognitive style measures often

“...emphasize process of responding as revealed through multiple part scores which frequently include indexes of speed and latency.  " (Messick, 1976, p. 10)
      Although there may appear to be a clear distinction drawn between level or ability and cognitive style, the separation may not be as sharp as some would suggest.  Some stylistic dimensions may be related to ability domains in both conception and measurement.  Kogan (1973) attempted to classify degrees of difference and overlap between cognitive styles and abilities.  He classified cognitive styles into three broad types.  The first type included those styles, like field independence versus field dependence (Witkin, 1977), for which assessment is based on accuracy versus inaccuracy of performance.  This type of style is closely related to the ability or level domain.  The second type of cognitive style, like cognitive complexity (Bieri, 1961), is not derived through accuracy of performance but the dimension being measured provides a continuum upon which a value distinction is imposed.  A greater value is placed on the one, more valued, end of the dimension for this type of style.  The third type of style is reported to be the most purely stylistic.  No correctness of performance or value judgment is placed upon the kinds of results obtained.  An example of this third type is “breadth of categorization" (Pettigrew, 1958).  It would appear that some cognitive styles will be more closely related to the ability or level approaches while others could be referred to as more “pure” measures of style.  Of course, a number of theoretical approaches may have a mixed set of relationships.  Not only can styles vary on the distinctions mentioned above, but also in terms of the particular information-processing operations the style is emphasizing and the relative level of persuasiveness or generality the style may possess.

Implications of a Creativity Level-Style Distinction

      There is an increasing amount of literature which examines relationships between various measures of creative ability and cognitive style.  Bloomberg (1967) examined creativity’s relationship to field independence-dependence.  Del Gaudio (1976) investigated creativity’s relationship to psychological differentiation and mobility.  Gundlach and Gesell (1979) studied creativity’s relationship to psychological differentiation.  Isaksen (1992) examined the relationship between the components, stages and phases of CPS process and style of creativity.  Other researchers have investigated the relationship between problem-finding, creativity and cognitive style (Artley, Van Horn, Friedrich, & Carroll, 1980; Isaksen & Puccio, 1988; Puccio, 1987; Rickards & Puccio, 1992). 
      This type of research appears to be developing some levels of clarity regarding the level-style distinction.  This increased clarity provides an opportunity for creativity scholars to productively use the level-style distinction as a means for improving our understanding of creativity within people.  As a result, it may be helpful to examine the implications of the creativity level-style distinction through the four broad areas of person, process, product, and press. 

Implications of a Creativity Level-Style Distinction :Improved Understanding of Creativity Characteristics

      Understanding the characteristics associated with creativity has been a challenge for creativity scholars for many years.  For decades, these scholars have investigated characteristics of the creative person (Barron, 1963; Barron & Harrington, 1981; Davis, 1986; Dellas & Gaier, 1970; Gough, 1981; MacKinnon, 1978; Maslow, 1959; Stein, 1974; Torrance, 1974). One result of this proliferation has been the development of dozens of lists of characteristics associated with creative people.  Although there has been a focus on generating creativity characteristics, close examination reveals that most lists generally present a confusing array of contradictions and dichotomies.  Not only are the characteristics presented in such a way that they are confusing, they often have questionable usefulness.  Although the complete picture of the creative person requires many and varied perspectives, it is our assertion that the level-style distinction can be used to help clarity this confusion by effectively sorting and organizing the characteristics associated with creativity in people.  
      In an attempt to use the level-style distinction for this purpose, we used a sample of the more commonly-cited creativity characteristics identified in literature and sorted them according to those which focused on creative level and those which described creative style.











Figure One.
Results of Sorting Some Creativity Characteristics Using the Level-Style Distinction.

      For the purposes of this exercise, Kirton’s (1976) theory of cognitive style was used as the style dimension. 
      The results reported in Figure One are tentative, however, they do support the assertion that the level-style distinction can in fact be used to effectively sort and organize creativity characteristics into meaningful categories.  This sort is not intended to suggest an absolute positioning of the characteristics.  For example, the characteristic "unconventional" appears in the high-level innovative style of creativity.  It can be suggested that low-level, non-creative innovative behavior may also appear "unconventional."  However, the word unconventional appears to be more often used to describe high-level creative behavior and therefore was put in the high-level area of the figure.  The collection of characteristics used in the activity was not intended to be exhaustive, however, it does provide a representative sample of the characteristics available in the creativity literature.  It is interesting to note that the distinction was not able to sort all the characteristics according to style.  Some of the characteristics seem to describe a more generalized perception of creativity within people.  These may be the characteristics which are most appropriately and effectively used to describe creativity in people across the diversity of style preferences.
      Using the level-style distinction to improve our understanding of creativity provides two major implications.  First, the distinction may help provide an organizing framework for sorting the creativity characteristics into more meaningful categories.  Second, it may also help broaden our understanding of creativity so as to demystify the concept and validate a wider variety of creativity styles.

Implications of a Creativity Level-Style Distinction :Improved Understanding of Creativity Characteristics:Improved Sorting of Creativity Characteristics

      Should it be possible to clearly and consistently differentiate level from style of creativity, one of the most far-reaching implications to be able to effectively organize creativity characteristics into more meaningful categories.  As most readers of creativity research know, its nomenological network is very unclear (Cronbach & Meehl, 1973).  Separating level and style could serve to clarify the associations among constructs, properties or quantities and lead to better construct validation.  As a result, the level-style distinction may help explain some of the contradictory findings of previous creativity research. 

      For example, on the one hand, high creatives are often described as people who are risk-takers, constantly trying novel and unexplored behaviors or experimenting with unusual concepts.  On the other, it is also common to read that high creatives prefer to spend time working out the many details surrounding their projects.  Left alone, these characteristics appear to be in contradiction with each other in that taking risks suggest that all the details tend not be worked out.  However, this may be explained using Kirton's (1976) theory of cognitive style.  By considering the identification of a high risk taker as a socially-conferred judgment of an innovator with high-level creativity; while describing someone who works out the many details associated with their work as a description of an adaptor with a high level of creativity.  The tension may be explained in that these characteristics are associated with people having different styles of creativity as opposed to one person having strong preferences for both.   

      As a result, the level-style distinction might be useful for re-examining previous creativity literature and clarifying the theoretical confusion caused by mixing or “muddling” level and style.  The creativity characteristics can become more meaningful and productive when they are put into categories which more accurately describe the qualitative differences in how people use their creative ability.  In fact, if we are interested in developing people’s creativity for future application, we may need to be more concerned with understanding individual style preferences in addition to measuring their level of accomplishment. 

Implications of a Creativity Level-Style Distinction :Improved Understanding of Creativity Characteristics:Broadening our Understanding of Creativity

      The level-style distinction may also help broaden our conception of creativity to include and validate less popular styles or approaches.  The concept of measuring "level" or amount was initially developed out of a need to identify and manage limited resources.  With the reality of a limited resource, it would be important to understand exactly how much of the resource is available and where it can be found.  However, taking this approach suggests that creativity is a limited and not widely available resource. 

      Isaksen (1987) suggested that this perception of creativity may have been caused by some of the popular myths about the nature of the concept.  He identified three categories of mythology surrounding the concept of creativity.  He suggested that people often believed that creativity was a mysterious (unable to be understood or defined), and magical (only certain people have the "gift") phenomenon associated with madness (to be creative you have to be sick, strange or abnormal in some way).  As a result, people often took on the belief that creativity comes from an external source and that those individuals who were blessed with its gift could not control or predict when or how it would happen.  Given this perception, it is easy to understand why creativity was considered a limited resource and why researchers were so concerned with knowing who had how much of it.  However, if you challenge this basic assumption and replace it with the belief that creativity is a more widely available resource, a more productive approach to understanding creativity in people can be developed.

      It is our belief that creativity exists in all people, in different forms and in different levels, and that it may be more productive and appropriate to focus on what it looks like when people use it.  Taking this approach enables the concept of creativity to be broadened and to remove some of the bias that exists toward any one kind of creativity.  An example of the bias is how the creativity literature most often focuses on understanding and recognizing innovative creativity.  Most research regarding the creative person has been traditionally focused upon those who were socially nominated as having high levels of creativity.  Those individuals were found to have certain personality characteristics which differentiated them from those with lower levels of creativity.  However, closer examination suggests it may be more of a fact that those most frequently nominated as highly creative were those people who produce novelty which was highly visible.  Since it is easier for most people to remember who invented the first  airplane, and harder for them to recall who made the adaptive or incremental improvements within the paradigm of "airplane," innovative creativity would by its nature be observed and nominated more frequently than adaptive creativity.  The result is often a bias toward thinking of innovative creativity as more creative than adaptive creativity.  This bias can lead to defining and associating specific characteristics, most often innovative in nature, with high levels of creative performance.  Using this simplistic view of conceptualizing technological innovation as incremental improvement or radical shift can have disastrous effects on organizations (Henderson & Clark, 1990). 

      By broadening our conception of style of creativity to include less "popular" or visible styles, we increase the ways in which people can be included under the conception of creative.  Instead of being focused solely on historical accomplishments or "certifying" someone as a creative person, examining style suggests a more inclusive and true approach to assessing and developing creativity.  The validation of less popular styles may help individuals to accept and develop their creative strengths rather than asserting that they are not "creative."  The inclusion of these styles also provides support for the notion that creativity is a natural, broadly distributed, human characteristic, not something reserved for the gifted few.  Broadening the definition of creativity is also consistent with recent developments within cognitive science to broaden, rather than constrict our understanding and approaches to human abilities (Gardner, 1985).  However, researchers must be careful in stretching the understanding or definition of a concept beyond its usefulness.  It is important that a concept be defined in a way that enables it to distinguish one thing from another.  Although creativity should be broadened to include a wider variety of different kinds of creativity, it must not be broadened to the point that it can no longer distinguish what is creative and what is not. 

      It appears that taking a more integrated approach to using level and style in understanding creativity in people may be more beneficial then taking an either-or approach.  The distinction helps provide a more robust conception of creativity, as well as further clarifies and explains the confusion found in previous creativity research.  It also raises important issues regarding the distinction between what is not creative and what is not.  A clear epistemology remains necessary for developing further understanding and clarity regarding creativity in people.  The level-style distinction helps support the notion that a more appropriate focus for understanding creativity may be on appreciating all styles of creativity rather than on placing levels of value on different kinds of creativity.  Given the increased clarity in understanding creativity in people, the level-style distinction may also be productive in examining some of the specific relationships between the creative person and the processes they use, the outcomes they perform, or their perceptions of creative environments.
Implications of a Creativity Level-Style Distinction :Improved Ability to Target the Creative Process

      A second major implication of the level-style distinction concerns the ability to effectively target the creative process.  The current interest of the Center for Studies in Creativity in cognitive styles and their distinction from creative level stems from experience and research relating to the Creative Studies Project (Noller & Parnes, 1972; Parnes & Noller, 1973 & 1974; Parnes, 1987).  This project studied the effects of a two-year creativity development program on a variety of level-oriented variables.  A few of the abilities with which the study was concerned included:  the ability to cope with real-life situational tests including the generation and evaluation of ideas; applying creative abilities in special tests in English courses; mathematical problem-solving ability; performance on the semantic and behavioral half of Guilford’s (1977) SOI model; and a range of other variables.  The program was very successful in impacting many of the variables measured (Khatena & Parnes, 1974; Noller & Parnes, 1972; Parnes & Noller, 1972a & 1972b;  Reese, Parnes, Treffinger, & Kaltsounis, 1976;  Rose & Lin, 1984).  In general, the program was able to impact the abilities or level of creativity of the experimental subjects.  In fact, the Buffalo-based program has consistently demonstrated superior results when compared to other creativity training programs (Torrance, 1972; 1987b).  There were some intriguing findings, however, which suggested a relationship between the program's emphasis on improving level of creativity and style of creativity.

      Although the two-year program was very successful for the experimental subjects who stayed with the entire program, there were some subjects who chose to drop out of the program.  The experimental and control subjects who stayed with the program were comparable on nearly all the personality assessments conducted.  There were some interesting findings, however, regarding those experimentals and controls who dropped out.  They possessed characteristics like:  more directed toward deviancy or culturally disapproved behavior, in closer contact with their primary processes, freer, more impulsive, more likely to drop out of college, less responsible and more anxious (Parnes, 1987).  Drop-outs seemed to be more interested in artistic forms of creativity and dropped because of their disappointment in the nature of the course.  The implications and more extensive description of the findings of the drop-outs are reported extensively in Parnes & Noller (1973) and Parnes (1987). 

            The authors described a possible explanation for the drop-out phenomenon by describing two very different types of people.  They used the terms “lines” and “squiggles” in much the same way Juster (1963) does in his book The dot and the line.  The line is described as being straight, rigid, disciplined, responsible, seeking the ability to bend or twist, as well as more free and open.  The opposing type of

person, the squiggle, is described as undisciplined, unruly, wild, unconventional, original, and uninhibited.  In Juster’s story, the squiggle loses out to the line who has learned to merge his self-discipline and responsibility with a new-found sense of freedom and spontaneity. 

      The Creative Studies Project seemed better suited to the needs of the lines then squiggles:  the drop-outs seemed to be more like the squiggles; the stay-ins seemed to be more like the lines.  The program’s emphasis was on learning and applying many divergent techniques of CPS.  Perhaps the squiggles already mastered these skills and needed some assistance with the convergent, more analysis and focus-driven techniques.  The lines were very likely to have been able to recognize the impact of the learning in broadening their repetoire of skills and abilities.

      It is interesting to note the similarities between the descriptions provided for lines and squiggles and the descriptions of the adaptor and innovator (Kirton, 1976).  The similarity of these descriptions provides support for the use of style measures like the KAI in studying the cognitive styles of students in the Creative Studies Program.  The tasks of the Cognitive Styles Project at the Center included continuous collection of data regarding student styles and performance on a variety of behaviors relevant to the instructional program; being better able to target specific techniques to particular types of people for specific tasks;  being able to provide better information on the preferences of certain types of students for certain techniques;  and to enable students to be more flexible by focusing on understanding the value of learning and applying techniques that may not fit their preferred style.
      With this in mind, the Cognitive Styles Project was begun at the Center for Studies in Creativity as a follow-up to a component of the Creative Studies Project.  The purpose of the Cognitive Styles Project was to examine the relationships between the cognitive styles of the students and their preferences and abilities in learning and applying the skills of CPS.  Early work in the project focused on preparing a course text which would respond to the apparent imbalance in favor of divergent-thinking techniques.  The new text provided an open format and included much more emphasis on convergent-thinking guidelines and techniques (Isaksen & Treffinger, 1985).  This kind of developmental work on the instructional materials continues today (Isaksen, 1992; Treffinger & Isaksen, 1992).  Both the understanding and presentation of CPS continues to be updated and communicated through these types of instructional development.  The next step was to see if a more direct measure of style would provide an indication of student preferences in learning and applying CPS. 
      Zilewicz (1986) found that students with different styles reported strong differences in how they learned and applied CPS methods and techniques.  He used Gregorc’s (1982) measure of style and found that undergraduate students in creative studies classes whose scores where different on the Style Delineator showed clear differences in the way they perceived and ordered information, generated and evaluated ideas, worked with groups, and carried out plans of action.  In short, he found that individuals with different cognitive styles reported different strengths and weaknesses. When students shared cognitive styles, they demonstrated similar strengths and weaknesses on various aspects of the CPS process.  
      The next major phase of the project was to examine the available instrumentation to see which assessment approaches would be most fruitful for use in the instructionally-oriented research program.  The project involved the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (Myers & McCaully, 1985), the Kirton Adaption-Innovation Inventory (Kirton, 1976), and the Style Delineator (Gregorc, 1982).  The Style Delineator was dropped due to its inadequate psychometric properties (Joniak & Isaksen, 1988; O'Brien, 1990; and Sewall, 1986).  The two remaining instruments are still being included in the database for the project.
      Current work involves determining the behavioral predictability of the instrumentation to specific techniques, stages and components of CPS.  For example, Puccio (1987) found that scores on the KAI were able to discriminate the fluency and originality of problem statements generated by students when solving a real task provided from the railroad industry.  In examining the effect of style and fluency on the originality of problem statements, he found that fluency accounted for most of the variance in the predicted behavior.  Puccio's results did not support the orthoginality assertion of Kirton.  He suggested that further investigation of the concepts was necessary to bring further clarity to the level-style question.
      As a result, Isaksen and Puccio (1988) re-examined the level-style relationship using correlational analysis and t-tests.  Their results were consistent with previous findings (Puccio, 1987) regarding correlations between level and style.  They reported positive and significant correlations between the abilities of fluency, flexibility and originality of the TTCT (Torrance, 1974) and an innovative style of creativity on the KAI (Kirton, 1976).     



Table One.
Pearson Correlations for the Kirton (KAI) and Torrance measure (TTCT) (N=132).

Torrance (N=132)





KAI (Total Score)
















*p < .05.   †p < .01.

      Their results are reported in Table One.  Isaksen and Puccio suggested that either there was a relationship between level and style or that the assessments used to measure level and style were contaminated with each other.  Stronger and more complex research designs were recommended to more fully understand the complex relationship between level and style.  Based on this recommendation, Teft (1990) used a stronger and more complex research design to determine if level and style were orthogonal as Kirton (1989) asserted. 
      Using factor-analysis, Teft examined the relationship between the TTCT (Torrance, 1974), KAI (Kirton, 1976) and MBTI (Myers & McCaully, 1985).  The results are reported in Table Two.  Her results confirmed Kirton's assertion of an orthogonal relationship between creative level and creative style.  She reported that the TTCT and the KAI loaded on two separate factors (level and style, respectively).  However, she also found relationships between the KAI and the "Creativity Index" and two of the dimensions of the MBTI.  She concluded that the KAI was a sound measure of creativity style and that the assessments used to measure creative level may have been contaminated with style variables.   

Table Two.

Factor Analysis of the TTCT, MBTI and KAI (N=120).







Factor 1*

Factor 2*

Factor 3*










































% of variance




*note:  Only loadings > .30 entered to easily compare with Kirton (1987)

      One implication of her findings concerns the use of the MBTI, a measure of style, as a means for determining level of creative performance.  In her study, Teft reported a strong correlation between the "Creativity Index" of the MBTI and the style factor, as well as a lack of significant correlation between the “Creativity Index” and the level factor (see Table Three).  This suggests that the “Creativity Index” is more of a measure of style than level.  However, as Teft pointed out, Gough (1981) developed the "Creativity Index" to predict level of creative talent.  Theoretically, the MBTI is a measure of style and should not be able to predict level.  Gough's use of a style measure to predict level of creative talent demonstrates the conceptual confusion that exists in creativity research and practice.  It also suggests that the level-style distinction may be helpful to researchers interested in assessing creative performance by providing conceptual clarity to creativity constructs and forcing the development of better and more conceptually sound measures of level and style.  

Table Three.

Factor Analysis of TTCT, MBTI "Creativity Index" and KAI (N=120).



Factor 1

Factor 2










TTCT (flex)



TTCT (orig)



MBTI ("c.I.")









% of variance



      One of the ways to develop a better understanding of the level-style distinction is to examine the distinction in
 fields other than creativity.  The Cognitive Styles Project broadened its creativity focus by structuring an examination the concept of mental imagery as a mode of cognitive processing.  Dorval (1990) used the level-style distinction to organize the measures used to assess level and style of both creativity and imagery.  He used the Revised Minnesota Paper Form Board Test (MPFB) developed by Likert and Quasha (1941) to measure visual imagery ability and the Individual Differences Questionnaire (IDQ) developed by Paivio (1971) to measure preference for imaginal and verbal modes of cognitive processing. 

Table Four.

Correlations Between Imagery Level and Imagery Preference (N=155).


IDQ Imaginal Scale

IDQ Verbal Scale

             MPFB test

P= .073

P= .373


      Similar to previous results (Isaksen & Puccio, 1988; Puccio, 1987), he reported small but significant relationships between the measures of level and style of creativity.  However, he found no significant relationships between the MPFB and the imaginal or verbal scales of the IDQ (see Table Four).  The strongest findings concerned the relationship between creativity style and preference for imagery.  Those with an innovative style on the KAI reported stronger preferences for both imagery and verbal modes of cognitive processing.  These results suggested the IDQ was a measure of style or preference for mode of cognitive processing while the MPFB test was a measure of level of visual imagery ability.  Finding no significant relationships between assessments of level and style of imagery supported Dorval's assertion that the level-style distinction found in the creativity area was also present for imagery.

      This line of research continued with work conducted by Isaksen, Dorval and Kaufmann (1991).  They focused specifically on the style relationships between creativity and imagery reported by Dorval (1990).  They  found that individuals with an innovative style of creativity had a higher general level of preference for conscious symbolic processing (both verbal and imaginal in nature).  Those with an innovative preference on the KAI had a stronger preference for the imaginal mode of symbolic processing than verbal processing.  These findings again suggested there are individual differences in how people prefer to use cognitive processing in their approaches to creativity and that the level-style distinction may be a productive approach to understanding creativity and related concepts. 

      Current work within the Cognitive Styles Project has focused on examining individual difference in cognitive style and the graphic depiction of creative process.  Pershyn (in preparation) analyzed illustrations of the natural creative processes of over 200 individuals.  Individuals were asked to remember a problem they successfully solved and draw, illustrate or communicate using symbols, the process they used when working on the problem.  In analyzing the illustrations, Pershyn found specific relationships between the individuals' cognitive styles and characteristics of their natural creative processes.  Using Kirton's adaption-innovation theory (1976), Pershyn was able to predict the cognitive style of the individual who illustrated the drawing.  He also was able to synthesize the common features found in each of the drawings to create the images presented in Figure Two. 

Figure Two.
Graphic depictions of natural creative process organized by cognitive style.


      His work is leading to new developments in the graphic depiction of the CPS process by taking into account individual differences in natural creative process.  This type of research will be helpful in understanding, predicting, and targeting the specific nature and characteristics of creative process used by people with different styles.  
      The results of the Cognitive Styles Project will potentially assist those involved in planning creative problem-solving instruction by making available information which provides a more comprehensive view of the factors within the person affecting the teaching-learning situation.  Information can be provided regarding learning preferences and techniques to assist students in flexing their behavior to better "fit" in situations outside their preferences.  As Kirton (1989) stated, flexing or "coping" behavior takes energy and creates stress.  Teachers may be in a position to use this information to improve the teaching-learning process in such a way as to minimize the stress felt by students.  In considering individual differences in learning, this information needs to go beyond the traditional boundaries.  As Messick (1976) indicated:

Concern about differences in prior learning and achievement and in level of social and cognitive development is not enough.  We must move beyond these differences in content and level of learning to more subtle differences in the processes of cognition and creative thinking to find the bases for individualizing education. (p. vi)

      It may also help those who provide training and instruction modify their methods of presentation and facilitation by improving communication through the understanding and appreciation of differences; and providing an array of environmental contingencies or choices to be more conducive to a variety of stylistic tendencies.
      Gryskiewicz's work (1980 & 1987) provided an example of how style can be used to effectively select and apply creative-thinking techniques.  He developed the Targeted Innovation Model which used KAI (Kirton, 1976) theory to provide a qualitative evaluation of the outcomes of three different idea-generating techniques.  He found that certain techniques were more likely to produce adaptive outcomes while others were more likely to produce innovative outcomes.  He asserted that since the outcomes of these creative problem-solving technologies replicated the KAI continuum, it was possible to be more targeted in their selection and application.  Teachers may be in a better position to design teaching-learning situations which encourage students to work with natural strengths and spend energy in those areas needing attention for more balanced creative problem solving.
      It is apparent that much work has been conducted which helps target the use of the creative process.  However, future work in the Cognitive Styles Project needs to consider and focus on the complex and multifaceted nature of creativity.  In order to take a more comprehensive approach to understanding creativity, the Center for Studies in Creativity has undertaken the Creativity Profiling Project (Isaksen & Puccio, in press).  The Profiling Project is a direct outgrowth of the Cognitive Styles Project in which its purpose is to examine the broad constellation of characteristics, qualities, dimensions and behaviors that predict effective use of CPS.  A key factor in this research is the examination of both level and style of creativity in people and their connection to the creative process.

Implications of a Creativity Level-Style Distinction :Improved Understanding of Preference for Creative Productivity

      Although there has been a great deal of historical interest in the productions of artists, scientists, and other great thinkers, there is relatively little empirical research which has attempted to understand the preferences people have for specific types of creative productivity.  However, there appears to be some conceptual linkages between Besemer and O’Quin's (1987) work and understanding creativity within people.  They developed a measure called the Creative Product Semantic Scale (CPSS) to assess the characteristics of creative products on three categories (see Figure Three).  The Novelty  and Resolution categories concern attributes of newness or originality and the extent to which the product or outcome solves the problem for which it was created, respectively.

Figure Three.
Besemer and O'Quin's model for evaluating attributes of creative products.

      The potential linkages here may appear in considering different style preferences and the characteristics of the outcomes they produce.  For example, using Kirton’s (Kirton, 1976) theory, innovators have preferences for proliferating novelty and prefer not to work out the details.  Adaptors tend to have preferences opposite to those described of the innovator.  As a result, innovators may be more likely to produce outcomes which are stronger in the novelty category while adaptors produce outcomes which are stronger in the resolution category.
      The third category identified by Besemer and O'Quin also suggests a conceptual link.  They describe the Elaboration and Synthesis category as concerned with the attractiveness, expressiveness or style of a product or outcome.  This suggests individual differences in preferences for how products and outcomes are expressed, as well as for the amount of novelty and usefulness they possess.
      These linkages may be helpful on a variety of levels.  First, they may help individuals understand and predict the qualities of the outcomes they are likely to produce.  Second, they may be used to help groups or teams understand and target the specific characteristics or qualities of the products they produce.  Third, organizations may use the information to plan product development strategies or improve product development cycles.  They may also help explain differences in the diffusion rates of innovations within organizations.  On any level, there appears to be solid linkages which can be helpful for improving the understanding of preferences for creative productivity.  This will undoubtedly be a fruitful area for future inquiry.   

Implications of a Creativity Level-Style Distinction :Understanding Individual Differences in Perceptions of Creative Environments

      Understanding creativity within people may also help understand individual differences in perceptions of environments which encourage and discourage creative productivity.  Some work has been conducted to examine relationships between characteristics of creativity within people and perceptions of creative environments (i.e., Ekvall & Tångeberg-Andersson, 1986; Isaksen & Kaufmann, 1990; Puccio, 1990).  In general, these studies suggested that what helps or inhibits people from using their creativity may be different from one person to the next.  For example, Isaksen and Kaufmann (1990) have conducted a preliminary examination of the relationship between creativity style (Kirton, 1976) and perception of the work environment or climate (as measured by the Climate for Innovation Questionnaire (Isaksen, 1992).  The Climate for Innovation Questionnaire measures individual psychological perceptions of the working environment on the ten dimensions of creative climates identified by Ekvall (Ekvall & Tångeberg-Andersson, 1986).  The dimensions are identified in Figure Four. 

Figure Four.
Dimensions of the Climate for Innovation and Creativity identified by Ekvall.

      All the dimensions are positively related to climates conducive to innovation and creativity except the conflict dimension which has a negative relationship.  Isaksen and Kaufmann (1990) found that looking at the same climate, adaptors and innovators differed significantly on perceptions of challenge (emotional commitment and involvement on the part of workers in the activities of the organization) and conflict (personal tension between people).  Adaptors perceived more challenges while innovators perceived more conflict.  This suggests the style-climate connection might be a useful for explaining how individuals differ in their perceptions of the same social situations, or helping teams develop common perceptions of the challenges and concerns (Isaksen & Kaufmann, 1990).  Much work needs to be done to more fully examine and understand the relationship between these concepts. 
      Puccio (1990) also examined the relationship between style and perception of the working environment.  He had subjects complete Kirton's (1976) KAI three times using three different reference points.  Subjects identified the style they used at work, the style they thought their working environment required them to be, and the style they thought they would like to be.  He correlated these scores with measures of job satisfaction, stress and creative performance.  Puccio reported that as difference between the style subjects used at work and the style demands of their work situation, subjects reported lower job satisfaction and greater job stress.  It was also interesting to note that both adaptors and innovators reported wanting an environment that was characterized as more innovative in nature.  He concluded that style might be a useful factor to consider in determining the level of "fit" between people and their work environment. 
      Other work has focused on using the linkages between people and their perceptions of the situation to help plan the use of specific process techniques to creative productive change.  Isaksen (1992) developed a link between a person's orientation (level of skills and abilities, style, motivation, etc.), their outlook (view of history, current perceptions, images for the future, etc.), and the use of CPS (see Figure Five).







Figure Five.
A graphic depiction of how Orientation and Outlook can be used to target  the use of CPS.

      He suggested that information about the people involved in a problem-solving situation, as well as their perceptions of the characteristics of the situation itself can be effectively used to target the application of CPS components, stages and techniques.  This is an example of what the Profiling Project of the Center for Studies in Creativity is trying to investigate. 
      It is apparent from these works that connections between the characteristics of creative people and the creative environment may be helpful in understanding, predicting and encouraging high-level creative performance.  They may also be helpful in understanding what different people need in order to fit within a particular working environment.  Organizations have the potential to develop sociotechnical systems (Pasmore, 1988) which are more effective at meeting the individual needs of those working within them.  Style may also be an important factor in understanding and determining the appropriateness of certain techniques for certain environmental or task considerations (Armstrong & McDaniel, 1986; Silvestro, 1976).  It may also be a factor to consider when attempting to understand the context or environment within which creative talents are assessed or nurtured.  Much work which needs to be done in this area to help fully understand the nature of this relationship.


      The purpose of this chapter was to explore the use of the level-style distinction as a means for improving the understanding of creativity within people.  It appears that the level-style distinction may be a fruitful approach toward that end.  The distinction provides a strong conceptual foundation by making more explicit and comprehensive the linkages between creative characteristics within people, the processes they perform, their preferences for creative productivity, and the individual differences they hold in their perceptions of environments conducive to creative performance.  
      The distinction provides a stimulus for better creativity research.  It appears useful for clarifying some of the muddle of previous findings, as well as for planning more targeted future research.  It provides a framework for taking a more necessary ecological approach to creativity research to more fully examine the interactions found between different creativity constructs (Harrington, 1990).  It is important to remember, however, that creative behavior may be influenced by more factors than simply level and style.  To recognize, understand, predict and develop creative behavior, factors such as motivation, beliefs, values, feelings, personal history, and situational constraints need to be considered.  Future creativity research will need to take multivariate statistical approaches for better prediction of creative behavior.  The level-style distinction may provide a stronger anchoring of the core creativity constructs and variables necessary for this type of research.  It may also help researchers make better predictions and interpretations of their results.
      Questions still remain regarding the nature of the level-style relationship.  On a conceptual level, it appears reasonable to make a distinction between creativity level and creativity style.  Whether or not these two concepts can be operationalized in measurement or application as entirely orthogonal, somewhat related, or very highly correlated becomes a necessary and important line of investigation in improving the understanding of creativity within people.  The level-style distinction appears to be a strong step in that direction.



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