Thinking, Concept Formation, and Creativity


Conceptualization, symbolic thought, and creativity are three uniquely human abilities. Although these abilities obviously have great personal and social importance, very little is known about them. The problem is, they are not directly observable. We have only the results or end-products of thinking, concept formation and creativity to work with. The processes involved can only be inferred.

Keep the following questions in mind as you read the text.



When a child learns to call a large four-legged furry animal "doggie," the first step in forming a concept has been taken. The child has associated a verbal response with an object in his environment. The second step is generalization. All similar animals may also be called "doggie." Even the lion at the zoo is included. If the parents now corrects the child who then learns "lion," the third stage discrimination -- has begun. Discrimination limits generalization. Even though the child cannot state the many properties that define concepts, one learns to attend and respond appropriately to very subtle differences. A Pekingese looks more like a Persian cat than like a Great Dane, yet a child learns to name all three correctly. Even as adults we have difficulty in verbalizing the defining attributes of many concepts. Try to define the concept "chair." Be careful to exclude sofas, stools, and benches. Yet, in spite of having a poor verbal definition of chair, we can readily pick chairs from non-chairs.


The child builds his concepts through the processes of association, generalization, and discrimination. The procedure is called inductive learning. The concept is induced from experiences with examples of the concept. When the learner can verbalize the defining attributes of the concept,it shows discovery learning.

Smoke (1932) used the nonsense syllable DAX in an experiment on concept formation. DAX was defined as a circle with a dot inside and another outside (Figure 19).

Figure 19. Samples of DAX and non-DAX figures (after Smoke, 1932)

Inductive learning is a process of generalizing from specific experiences

Subjects learned the concept by induction (i.e., they were not given the definition but were told if a given figure was "DAX" or not). The test of concept attainment required the subject to identify DAX figures they had not seen before. Smoke found that most of his subjects learned inductively only. They could pick out examples of DAX, but could not explain the concept. They had not "discovered" the principle underlying the concept, and could not verbalize the rule.


Animals can learn concepts by induction. A frequently used exercise in psychology laboratory courses (Homme and Klaus, 1962) involves teaching a pigeon the concept "triangle." A bird is first taught to peck a disc to obtain food. Different figures are then placed on the disc, with the following reinforcement contingencies:


By this process of differential reinforcement the bird learns to peck only triangles. The pigeon has attained the concept of triangularity as surely as a child has who can say "triangle" when shown a three-sided figure, but cannot verbalize the definition.


Although animals are limited to inductive concept learning (i.e., they must go from the specific to the general), humans, because they have language, can work in the opposite direction. Concepts can be "handed down" by supplying the learner with them and asking him to identify specific examples of the concepts.

The process is called deduction, or deductive learning. This course is based on the assumption that students can learn by deduction. Concepts are defined early in a unit. Then, the student practices by thinking of, or selecting, correct examples of the concepts.

In deduction we relate specific experience to general concepts learned previously

Deduction is more efficient than induction. Without deduction, students would have to rediscover for themselves concepts that were developed through centuries of experience and scholarship. On the other hand, inductive learning should not be neglected, because it leads to greater retention (possibly because of overlearning) and increased motivation.

Association, generalization, and discrimination in concept attainment do not yield readily to analysis. We form many concepts such as "God," "injustice," "electricity," the "American dream," etc., through a complex interaction of induction and deduction. Nevertheless, the effort to understand concept development is important. Such understanding might lead, for example, to more efficient educational procedures in the teaching of concepts, using the inductive and deductive approaches where most effective.


Munn (1955) describes thinking in the following manner:

Thinking is typically a sequential arousal of symbols. We think of one thing; that starts us thinking of another; that of still another, and so on. In this way we manipulate and rearrange, as it were, the various aspects of the world which have fallen within the range of our experience. Except when we "think out loud, " this process is carried on implicitly. Words are unspoken and the gestures are so abbreviated as to escape notice The images and other processes are by their very nature implicit

There are people who believe that thinking is not a proper topic for psychology because it is private. It cannot be directly observed. Thinking can only be inferred from behavior. When someone "thinks through" a problem, we can observe his solution but we must infer what thinking led to that solution.

There are two positions on the nature of thinking. Behaviorists view thinking as covert behavior. "Covert" means hidden or secret, and thinking certainly has those features. It is difficult, if not impossible, to observe thinking in any direct way. The contrast is with overt behavior -- the kind of behavior that is easy to observe like talking, moving around or driving a car.

While covert behavior (thinking) may be hidden, behaviorists believe that it obeys the same laws as overt behavior. For example, if reinforcement follows a thought or idea, then that thought or idea will tend to appear more often in the future under similar stimulus conditions.

On the other hand, cognitive theory holds that thinking is a "higher mental process" that obeys its own laws. From a physiological standpoint, thinking involves only the brain while behavior involves the sensory and muscular systems as well. The point is that thinking is free of the limitations of senses and muscles; hence thinking follows different laws from those that govern behavior.

Watson, the father of behaviorism, took the extreme position that thinking is nothing more than talking to oneself. This covert form of ``talking" takes place with the mouth, throat, and vocal cords. As an example of the importance of your mouth position while thinking, try to think the word "bubble" while holding your mouth open and your tongue stuck out. With practice it can be done, but the fact that it is not easy lends support to the position that minute muscular activity in the throat and mouth region does affect thinking. When electrical sensors are placed near the vocal cords, electrical muscle potentials can be detected when the subject reports they are thinking. Further evidence comes from studies with deaf-mutes who use sign language (Max 1937). Such subjects show muscular activity in their hands when thinking or dreaming. Other studies, however, indicate that muscular actions are at most correlates of the thinking process. When muscle activity is completely eliminated through drugs (curare) or surgery, subjects report they can think just as well as ever.


What is creative behavior? There are many answers. Tosti (1969) developed criteria for creativity in the form of objectives for teaching preschool children. One objective was, "the student shall learn the sound of a letter using an approach never used before." Another was "when given an object the child shall state three things it can be used for other than its intended function." Such objectives equate originality with creativity. Maltzman (1960) gives a different answer. He distinguishes between originality and creativity. Both are novel or unusual responses to situations, but the response is judged to be creative only if it is valued by society. Thus, Alexander Graham Bell may not have been any more original than a criminal masterminding a bank robbery, but society values the work of Bell, and he is judged creative.

Creative people are not especially eccentric or neurotic. Getzels and Jackson (1962) studied grade school children who scored high on tests of creativity. They were judged as having more ''silly" ideas by their classmates, and as being more "wild" by their teachers. However, these correlations decreased in the later grades.


Kubie(1958) and Cattel (1965) conclude that the incidence of neurosis among creative people is no higher than in the general population. Creative people do show a slight preference for isolation, but even this tendency is less than popularly assumed.


Tests of creativity are usually of two types:

1 ) Tests of Ingenuity -- Such tests request the subject to employ unique or unusual solutions to problems, such as finding new uses for things (overcoming the functional fixity set).

Example: List as many things a paper clip could be used for as you can think of.

2) Tests of Inference and Abstraction -- Such a test was designed by Mednick (1962); a sample item from this type of test follows.

Find a fourth word which is associated with each group of three words.

Example: rat -- blue -- cottage (cheese)
a. out dog cat
b. wheel electric high


The differential treatment of boys and girls in our culture leads to significant differences in creativity.

Torrance (1965) asked children to improve toys so that they would be "more fun." The toys used in the experiment were a nurse's kit, a fire engine, and a dog. Some first-grade boys refused to think of anything for the nurse's kit, so the girls were superior to the boys on this task. Boys were superior on the fire-truck task, and no differences were observed on the dog task. By the third grade, however, boys were superior on all three tasks.

Torrance gave several hypotheses for these differences:
1) Boys have a greater tendency to manipulate, explore, and experiment.
2) Peer pressure suppresses creativity, and girls tend to be more peer conscious than boys.
3) Girls express obvious dislike for science-toy tasks and tend to withdraw from such activities. (There has been, however, a shifting away from such reactions by girls in recent years.)
4) The contribution of Boys in group problem-solving activities is valued more highly by peers than that of girls.

It appears from the data that creativity is stifled when conditions are such that societal pressures are brought to bear upon divergent behavior. On the other hand, creativity is increased when conditions are such that novel behavior is rewarded. Of course, society must exert control on the behavior of individuals, but control must be balanced against benefit. Are a thousand conforming ideas worth one original thought?



There is growing interest in the relationship between cognitive processes and the brain. Dr. Christine Chiarello at the University of California, Riverside, is studying in her laboratory how the brain is processing cognitive material. She suggests that contrary to traditional knowledge, both hemispheres of the brain are involved in cognitive processes. She is exploring how both hemispheres interact to process grammatical and attention phenomenon.

Some of the current work in psycholinguistics and cognition can be learned from visiting the Psycholinguistics and Computational Cognition Lab page at the University of California, Riverside.


Now test yourself without looking back.

1. Name the three aspects of inductive concept formation._____________________

2. First-grade children who score high on tests of creativity:
a. tend to be considered wild by their teachers.
b. seldom express unusual ideas to their peers.
c. become unusually intelligent adults.
d. (none of these)

3. The behaviorist views thinking as synonymous with
4. According to Maltzman (1960) a creative idea is one which is:
a. bizarre.
b. novel or original.
c. valued by society.

5. If you were going to teach a rat the concept of black you would:
a. point only to black figures.
b. reinforce only if the rat responds to black.
c. present a black patch just before food is administered.
d. (none of these)

6. If a learner is given a general principle and is tested by selecting examples of that principle, which form of concept learning is being demonstrated?____________________________
7. Are creative people more neurotic than less creative people? ____________________





There are essentially two major views of human behavior which divide psychologists. The basic question is, can complex human activities be reduced to cumulation of simpler acts (behavioristic position) or is there a discontinuity between simple and complex behaviors (cognitive view)?

It is in the areas of thinking and concept formation and serial learning that these differences in position are most apparent. Label the statements below as consistent with either the behavioristic or cognitive theory.

Thinking is nothing more than covert speech. ________________________________________ 6

In running a maze, a rat learns a chain of responses to response produced cues.
______________________________________________________ 1

Thinking is a process that may include many parts of the nervous system operating as a coordinated whole to a build-up in mental impressions.
______________________________________ 3

All concept formation results from differential reinforcement.
____________________________ 8

The rat forms in his mind a mental image or map of the maze. _____________________________________________________ 5

Below is a concept learning task. Look at the ten examples given and determine the defining principle.

(Ten figures with PIV represented as the concept) _________________________________________________ 4

Inductive -- going from the specific to the general

Deductive - going from the general to the specific.

What form of concept attainment was used in the previous problem?
______________________________________________ 7


1 Behavioristic
3 Cognitive
4 PIV is any enclosed figure which has another figure inside it.
5 Cognitive
6 Behavioristic
7 Inductive
8. Behavioristic

The three aspects of concept development are association, generalization and discrimination. Since the first PIV was a circle, there would be a tendency to classify figure number 9 as a PIV. This is an example of:
a. association.
b. generalization.
c. discrimination.


A subject could erroneously persist in the assumption that a circle was a necessary part of the definition except that the discriminating figures and indicated it was not. ______________________________________________________5

Torrance (1961) states:
Counselors and teachers may become irritated with children who seem to create problems for themselves by trying consciously to be different -- searching for their uniqueness. One authority maintains that creative individuals reject the demands of their society to surrender their individuality because they want to own themselves totally and because they perceive a shortsightedness in the claim of society that all its members should adapt themselves to a norm for a given time and place.

From the previous statement you would expect that:
a. creative children exhibit somewhat more antisocial behavior than less creative people.
b. society tends to suppress creativity.
c. many teachers tend to have problems with those children who "try to be different."
d. (none of these)


Maltzman limited the definition of creativity to those original responses which were valued by society.
According to this definition, which is more creative?
a. A novel mousetrap that is better and cheaper than conventional traps
b. A novel mousetrap that is better and more expensive than conventional traps




1. Is it true that there are no differences in behavior between the creative and the less creative?

2. Suppose a person was given the following trials:

(Series of square and circular figures given reinforcement or no reinforcement

3. Is it true that studies indicate there are no sex differences in creativity?____________________

4. Which of these statements is not consistent with a cognitive point of view?
a. Thinking is nothing more than covert speech.
b. Thinking is typically a sequential arousal of symbols.
c. Thinking may include many parts of the nervous system.
d. (none of these)

5. If a learner is shown many examples of a concept and then correctly states the principle. What form of concept learning has been demonstrated?____________________________




January 24, 2001