Associationism was, in its beginnings, a philosophical approach that affirmed that human thought operated by associating a state with other successor states.
The British associationists, among whom John Locke and David Hume stand out, defended that this principle of association applied to all mental processes and that ideas were associated in mind following certain laws, among which the law of continuity and the law of similarity.
How is this concept associated with creative processes? To do this, we must examine the associationist theory of creativity.
Sarnoff Mednick's ideas
The law of continuity postulates that ideas experienced together tend to appear together in our minds (for example, when a situation evokes some feeling or the memory of a person).
The law of similarity maintains that psychic contents that have similarities tend to manifest together in our thinking (for example, when a photo of someone evokes traits of their personality).
In 1962, Sarnoff Mednick published his associative theory of the creative process. He argued that creative thinking was the process by which disparate elements come together in new combinations to make a proposition useful to the individual or society. Combining the most remote elements is considered more creative than combining the most similar elements.
Serendipity, similarity, and meditation
Mednick posited that the individual could produce creative solutions through one of three processes: serendipity, similarity, or meditation. Serendipity would be a process of accidental association, the similarity would be by evocation between two elements, and meditation would produce evocation when three or more elements appear.
This author also identified different variables, especially differential ones, that could contribute to increasing the probability of reaching a creative solution or of making a novel association. In this way, the basis was created for the psychological study of the creative from the associationist theory of creativity.
The Remote Associates Test
One of the advantages of association theory applied to creativity is that it can be tested. In 1968, Mednick operationalized the associative definition of creativity through the Remote Associates Test (RAT), a widely applied instrument in research on creative thinking, even today.
In their study, Mednick’s team reported high RAT reliability scores and a positive correlation between high RAT scores and high mental flexibility. In contrast, low RAT scores were associated with highly opinionated individuals. Subsequent studies have found a high correlation with the Creativity Rating Scale (CRS), while there seems to be no correlation between the RAT and the Miller Analogy Test (MAT) or with the Grade Point Average (GPA).
Criticism of the RAT
Despite the intensive use of the RAT in the study of creativity, the instrument has not been exempt from criticism. One of them is aimed at ignoring the effect that the individual’s motivation may have on the score, as well as other factors intrinsic to the person, such as their past experiences. It has also been found that a high RAT score is significantly related to other cognitive variables, such as the verbal ability.
Likewise, the associative theory as a whole also has its detractors. Among them is Daniel Fasko, who argues that the associative theory of creativity is too simplistic to address the complexity of this psychological phenomenon.
Alexander Bain and the concept of incubation
One of the proposals on creativity that has been born from associationism is the idea of incubation proposed by Alexander Bain.
This author proposes that incubation takes place when new combinations of elements emerge from ideas that already exist in the individual’s mind. From this perspective, creation from nothing would be impossible since creation is understood as an act of combining, in a novel way, the substratum stored in the minds of individuals.
Other authors point to the importance of the process of formation, retention, and use of associations not only for creativity but also for incidental learning, understanding incidental learning as a situation in which apparently irrelevant ideas or relationships tend to associate later, generating a change in the individual’s knowledge and behavior.
In this sense, it is understood that a creative individual will exhibit better incidental learning.
To explain the possible connection between creativity and incidental learning, two hypotheses have been proposed: (a) a highly creative individual has greater perceptual sensitivity to irrelevant stimuli; and (b) the highly creative person is better able to retain the stimulus and make it more accessible later, to use the information in an incidental learning task (Laughlin, 1967).
Creative thinking from associationism
From the perspective of associationism, creative thinking results from a mental process in which disparate elements come together in a novel way, resulting in a useful proposal for the individual or the environment or solving a problem.
According to associationists, ideas successively lead to other ideas, and this continuum of connections would constitute the general functioning of the mind.
From this perspective, any associative theory of creativity will focus on analyzing how such ideas can be generated and how these ideas are linked to each other in our minds.
Currently, there is consensus that expanding the number of options or elements so that a wide variety of associations can be generated facilitates creativity. In fact, many of the current theories of creativity precisely place the key to the creative process in the association of ideas proposed by Mednick.
Laughlin, P. R., Doherty, M. A., & Dunn, R. F. (1968). Intentional and incidental concept formation as a function of motivation, creativity, intelligence, and sex. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 8(4-1): 401–409.
Mednick, S. (1962). The associative basis of the creative process. Psychological Review, 69(3): 220–232.
Mednick S. A. (1968). The remote associates test. Journal of Creative Behaviour. 2: 213–214.