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Theoretical Explanations

Several researchers in several disciplines have attempted to explain the observed declines in creativity. These explanations can be assigned to the following four categories:

Psychobiological theories. These strive to explicate developmental changes in terms of the physical and neurological changes that attend the aging process. For instance, individuals entering the latter part of life may exhibit declines in sensory acuity, reaction time, and memory retrieval. To the extent that these perceptual and cognitive functions underlie the creative process, such decrements can have negative consequences for creativity.

Psychological theories. In contrast to psychobiological theories, psychological theories attempt to explain any age declines in terms of cognitive processes more directly tied to the creative process. According to one information-processing theory, for example, the career trajectory is a function of an underlying two-step cognitive process by which potential creativity is converted to actual creativity. The theory obtains a postpeak decline without assuming the intrusion of any psychobiological decrements.

Economic theories. These theories treat creativity as another form of productive behavior. As a consequence, economists will speak of creativity as the consequence of sufficient investment in "human capital" and the existence of incentives that give output high utility. Thus, any age decrements in creativity will be ascribed to the obsolescence in the accumulated capitol or to the decreased incentive to maintain productivity in the final years.

Sociological theories. These place the causal locus of any developmental changes outside the individual. In particular, longitudinal changes in creativity may result from corresponding shifts in the norms and role expectations that a society associates with distinct age groups. For instance, poets may produce their best works at younger ages than philosophers because that is most consistent with societal expectations about the romanticism of youth versus the wisdom of maturity. In addition, declines in creativity in the later years might simply reflect shifts in the number and kinds of roles that people are expected to occupy as they get older.

Each of these theoretical accounts can be shown to be inconsistent with certain empirical facts about how creativity changes in the later years. For instance, psychobiological explanations predict that creative productivity should vary according to chronological age, whereas the research shows that career age accounts for more longitudinal variance. Likewise, economic interpretations predict that creativity must decline in the last years, due to the higher cost-benefit ratio, in contradiction to the observation that creativity can resuscitate in the final years. Such empirical inadequacies imply that creativity in the latter part of life is probably the complex function of numerous distinct factors, some beneficial and others detrimental to continued creative activity.




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LEVY, B., and LANGER, E. "Aging." In Encyclopedia of Creativity, Vol. 1. Edited by M. A. Runco and S. Pritzker. San Diego: Academic Press, 1999. Pages 45–52.

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Additional topics

Medicine EncyclopediaAging Healthy - Part 1Creativity - Empirical Findings, Theoretical Explanations