Memory & Cognition

, Volume 42, Issue 7, pp 1186–1197 | Cite as

The roles of associative and executive processes in creative cognition

  • Roger E. BeatyEmail author
  • Paul J. Silvia
  • Emily C. Nusbaum
  • Emanuel Jauk
  • Mathias Benedek


How does the mind produce creative ideas? Past research has pointed to important roles of both executive and associative processes in creative cognition. But such work has largely focused on the influence of one ability or the other—executive or associative—so the extent to which both abilities may jointly affect creative thought remains unclear. Using multivariate structural equation modeling, we conducted two studies to determine the relative influences of executive and associative processes in domain-general creative cognition (i.e., divergent thinking). Participants completed a series of verbal fluency tasks, and their responses were analyzed by means of latent semantic analysis (LSA) and scored for semantic distance as a measure of associative ability. Participants also completed several measures of executive function—including broad retrieval ability (Gr) and fluid intelligence (Gf). Across both studies, we found substantial effects of both associative and executive abilities: As the average semantic distance between verbal fluency responses and cues increased, so did the creative quality of divergent-thinking responses (Study 1 and Study 2). Moreover, the creative quality of divergent-thinking responses was predicted by the executive variables—Gr (Study 1) and Gf (Study 2). Importantly, the effects of semantic distance and the executive function variables remained robust in the same structural equation model predicting divergent thinking, suggesting unique contributions of both constructs. The present research extends recent applications of LSA in creativity research and provides support for the notion that both associative and executive processes underlie the production of novel ideas.


Divergent thinking Latent semantic analysis Fluid intelligence Verbal fluency 


  1. Baird, B., Smallwood, J., Mrazek, M. D., Kam, J. W., Franklin, M. S., & Schooler, J. W. (2012). Inspired by distraction: Mind wandering facilitates creative incubation. Psychological Science, 23, 1117–1122. doi: 10.1177/0956797612446024 PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Barr, N., Pennycook, G., Stolz, J. A., & Fugelsang, J. A. (2014). Reasoned connections: A dual-process perspective on creative thought. Thinking & Reasoning. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1080/13546783.2014.895915
  3. Beaty, R. E., Nusbaum, E. C., & Silvia, P. J. (2014). Does insight problem solving predict real-world creativity? Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0035727
  4. Beaty, R. E., & Silvia, P. J. (2012). Why do ideas get more creative across time? An executive interpretation of the serial order effect in divergent thinking tasks. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 6, 309–319.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Beaty, R. E., & Silvia, P. J. (2013). Metaphorically speaking: Cognitive abilities and the production of figurative language. Memory & Cognition, 41, 255–267. doi: 10.3758/s13421-012-0258-5 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Beaty, R. E., Smeekens, B. A., Silvia, P. J., Hodges, D. A., & Kane, M. J. (2013). A first look at the role of domain-general cognitive and creative abilities in jazz improvisation. Psychomusicology: Music, Mind, and Brain, 23, 262–268.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Benedek, M., Beaty, R., Jauk, E., Koschutnig, K., Fink, A., Silvia, P. J., … Neubauer, A. C. (2014). Creating metaphors: The neural basis of figurative language production. NeuroImage, 90, 99–106. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2013.12.046
  8. Benedek, M., Bergner, S., Könen, T., Fink, A., & Neubauer, A. C. (2011). EEG alpha synchronization is related to top-down processing in convergent and divergent thinking. Neuropsychologia, 49, 3505–3511. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2011.09.004 PubMedCrossRefPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  9. Benedek, M., Franz, F., Heene, M., & Neubauer, A. C. (2012). Differential effects of cognitive inhibition and intelligence on creativity. Personality and Individual Differences, 53, 480–485.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Benedek, M., Könen, T., & Neubauer, A. C. (2012). Associative abilities underlying creativity. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 6, 273–281.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Benedek, M., Mühlmann, C., Jauk, E., & Neubauer, A. C. (2013). Assessment of divergent thinking by means of the subjective top-scoring method: Effects of the number of top-ideas and time-on-task on reliability and validity. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 7, 341–349.PubMedCrossRefPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  12. Benedek, M., & Neubauer, A. C. (2013). Revisiting Mednick’s model on creativity-related differences in associative hierarchies: Evidence for a common path to uncommon thought. Journal of Creative Behavior, 47, 273–289.PubMedCrossRefPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  13. Bowden, E. M., Jung-Beeman, M., Fleck, J., & Kounios, J. (2005). New approaches to demystifying insight. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 9, 322–328.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Carroll, J. B. (1993). Human cognitive abilities: A survey of factor-analytic studies. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Cattell, R. B., & Cattell, A. K. S. (2008). Measuring intelligence with the Culture Fair Tests. Oxford, UK: Hogrefe. Original work published 1961.Google Scholar
  16. Chein, J. M., & Weisberg, R. W. (2014). Working memory and insight in verbal problems: Analysis of compound remote associates. Memory & Cognition, 42, 67–83. doi: 10.3758/s13421-013-0343-4 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Christensen, P. R., Guilford, J. P., & Wilson, R. C. (1957). Relations of creative responses to working time and instructions. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 53, 82–88.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Conway, A. R. A., & Engle, R. W. (1994). Working memory and retrieval: A resource-dependent inhibition model. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 123, 354–373. doi: 10.1037/0096-3445.123.4.354 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. De Dreu, C. K. W., Nijstad, B. A., Bass, M., Wolsink, I., & Roskes, M. (2012). Working memory benefits creative insight, musical improvisation, and original ideation through maintained task-focused attention. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38, 656–669.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Dijksterhuis, A., & Meurs, T. (2006). Where creativity resides: The generative power of unconscious thought. Consciousness and Cognition, 15, 135–146.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Drewes, D. W. (2000). Beyond the Spearman–Brown: A structural approach to maximal reliability. Psychological Methods, 5, 214–227.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Ekstrom, R. B., French, J. W., Harman, H. H., & Dermen, D. (1976). Manual for kit of factor-referenced cognitive tests. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service.Google Scholar
  23. Engle, R. W., Tuholski, S. W., Laughlin, J. E., & Conway, A. R. A. (1999). Working memory, short-term memory, and general fluid intelligence: A latent-variable approach. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 128, 309–331. doi: 10.1037/0096-3445.128.3.309 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Evans, J. S. B. T. (2003). In two minds: Dual process accounts of reasoning. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 7, 454–459. doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2003.08.012 PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Feist, G. J. (1998). A meta-analysis of personality in scientific and artistic creativity. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 2, 290–309.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Finke, R. A., Ward, T. B., & Smith, S. M. (1992). Creative cognition: Theory, research, and applications. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  27. Gilhooly, K. J., Fioratou, E., Anthony, S. H., & Wynn, V. (2007). Divergent thinking: Strategies and executive involvement in generating novel uses for familiar objects. British Journal of Psychology, 98, 611–625.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Green, A. E., Fugelsang, J. A., & Dunbar, K. N. (2006). Automatic activation of categorical and abstract analogical relations in analogical reasoning. Memory & Cognition, 34, 1414–1421. doi: 10.3758/BF03195906 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Green, A. E., Fugelsang, J. A., Kraemer, D. J., & Dunbar, K. N. (2008). The Micro-Category account of analogy. Cognition, 106, 1004–1016. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2007.03.015 PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Hancock, G. R., & Mueller, R. O. (2001). Rethinking construct reliability within latent variable systems. In R. Cudeck, S. du Toit, & D. Sörbom (Eds.), Structural equation modeling: Present and future (pp. 195–216). Lincolnwood, IL: Scientific Software International.Google Scholar
  31. Henry, J. D., Crawford, J. R., & Phillips, L. H. (2004). Verbal fluency performance in dementia of the Alzheimer’s type: A meta-analysis. Neuropsychologia, 9, 1212–1222.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Jauk, E., Benedek, M., Dunst, B., & Neubauer, A. C. (2013). The relationship between intelligence and creativity: New support for the threshold hypothesis by means of empirical breakpoint detection. Intelligence, 41, 212–221.PubMedCrossRefPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  33. Jauk, E., Benedek, M., & Neubauer, A. C. (2014). The road to creative achievement: A latent variable model of ability and personality predictors. European Journal of Personality, 28, 95–105.PubMedCrossRefPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  34. Kahneman, D. (2003). A perspective on judgment and choice: Mapping bounded rationality. American Psychologist, 9, 697–720. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.58.9.697 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Kaufman, J. C., Plucker, J. A., & Baer, J. (2008). Essentials of creativity assessment. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.Google Scholar
  36. Kline, R. B. (2011). Principles and practice of structural equation modeling (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Guilford Press.Google Scholar
  37. Kounios, J., Frymiare, J. L., Bowden, E. M., Fleck, J. I., Subramaniam, K., Parrish, T. B., & Jung-Beeman, M. (2006). The prepared mind: Neural activity prior to problem presentation predicts subsequent solution by sudden insight. Psychological Science, 17, 882–890. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2006.01798.x PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Landauer, T. K., Foltz, P. W., & Laham, D. (1998). An introduction to latent semantic analysis. Discourse Processes, 25, 259–284. doi: 10.1080/01638539809545028 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Lee, C. S., & Therriault, D. J. (2013). The cognitive underpinnings of creative thought: A latent variable analysis exploring the roles of intelligence and working memory in three creative thinking processes. Intelligence, 41, 306–320.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. McCrae, R. R., & Costa, P. T., Jr. (2007). Brief versions of the NEO-PI-3. Journal of Individual Differences, 28, 116–128.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Mednick, S. A. (1962). The associative basis of the creative process. Psychological Review, 69, 220–232.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Mednick, M. T., Mednick, S. A., & Jung, C. C. (1964). Continual association as a function of level of creativity and type of verbal stimulus. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 69, 511–515.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Mendelsohn, G. A. (1976). Associative and attentional processes in creative performance. Journal of Personality, 44, 341–369. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-6494.1976.tb00127.x CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Milgram, R. M., & Rabkin, L. (1980). Developmental test of Mednick’s associative hierarchies of original thinking. Developmental Psychology, 16, 157–158.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Nusbaum, E. C., & Silvia, P. J. (2011). Are intelligence and creativity really so different? Fluid intelligence, executive processes, and strategy use in divergent thinking. Intelligence, 39, 36–45.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Nusbaum, E. C., Silvia, P. J., & Beaty, R. E. (2014). Ready, set, create: What instructing people to “be creative” reveals about the meaning and mechanisms of divergent thinking. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0036549
  47. Olczak, P. V., & Kaplan, M. F. (1969). Originality and rate of response in association as a function of associative gradient. American Journal of Psychology, 82, 157–167.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Petersen, S. E., Fox, P. T., Posner, M. I., Mintun, M., & Raichle, M. E. (1989). Positron emission tomographic studies of the processing of single words. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 1, 153–170. doi: 10.1162/jocn.1989.1.2.153 PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Piers, E. V., & Kirchner, E. P. (1971). Productivity and uniqueness in continued word association as a function of subject creativity and stimulus properties. Journal of Personality, 39, 264–276.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Plucker, J. A. (1999). Is the proof in the pudding? Reanalyses of Torrance’s (1958 to present) longitudinal data. Creativity Research Journal, 12, 103–114.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Prabhakaran, R., Green, A. E., & Gray, J. R. (2013). Thin slices of creativity: Using single-word utterances to assess creative cognition. Behavior Research Methods. Advance online publication. doi: 10.3758/s13428-013-0401-7
  52. Runco, M. A. (2007). Creativity. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.Google Scholar
  53. Silvia, P. J. (2011). Subjective scoring of divergent thinking: Examining the reliability of unusual uses, instances, and consequences tasks. Thinking Skills and Creativity, 6, 24–30.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Silvia, P. J., & Beaty, R. E. (2012). Making creative metaphors: The importance of fluid intelligence for creative thought. Intelligence, 40, 343–351.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Silvia, P. J., Beaty, R. E., & Nusbaum, E. C. (2013). Verbal fluency and creativity: General and specific contributions of broad retrieval ability (Gr) factors to divergent thinking. Intelligence, 41, 328–340.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Silvia, P. J., Martin, C., & Nusbaum, E. C. (2009). A snapshot of creativity: Evaluating a quick and simple method for assessing divergent thinking. Thinking Skills and Creativity, 4, 79–85.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Silvia, P. J., Nusbaum, E. C., Berg, C., Martin, C., & O’Connor, A. (2009). Openness to experience, plasticity, and creativity: Exploring lower-order, higher-order, and interactive effects. Journal of Research in Personality, 43, 1087–1090.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Silvia, P. J., Winterstein, B. P., Willse, J. T., Barona, C. M., Cram, J. T., Hess, K. I., …. Richard, C. A. (2008). Assessing creativity with divergent thinking tasks: Exploring the reliability and validity of new subjective scoring methods. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 2, 68–85.Google Scholar
  59. Sio, U. N., & Ormerod, T. C. (2009). Does incubation enhance problem solving? A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 135, 94–120. doi: 10.1037/a0014212 PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Süß, H.-M., Oberauer, K., Wittmann, W. W., Wilhelm, O., & Schulze, R. (2002). Working-memory capacity explains reasoning ability—and a little bit more. Intelligence, 30, 261–288. doi: 10.1016/S0160-2896(01)00100-3 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Torrance, E. P. (1988). The nature of creativity as manifest in its testing. In R. J. Sternberg (Ed.), The nature of creativity: Contemporary psychological perspectives (pp. 43–75). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  62. Troyer, A. K., Moscovitch, M., Winocur, G., Alexander, M. P., & Stuss, D. (1998). Clustering and switching on verbal fluency: The effects of focal frontal- and temporal-lobe lesions. Neuropsychologia, 36, 499–504.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Unsworth, N. (2009). Individual differences in self-initiated processing at encoding and retrieval: A latent variable analysis. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 62, 257–266.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Unsworth, N., & Engle, R. W. (2007). The nature of individual differences in working memory capacity: Active maintenance in primary memory and controlled search from secondary memory. Psychological Review, 114, 104–132. doi: 10.1037/0033-295X.114.1.104 PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Unsworth, N., Redick, T. S., Lakey, C. E., & Young, D. L. (2010). Lapses in sustained attention and their relation to executive and fluid abilities: An individual differences investigation. Intelligence, 38, 111–122.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Wallach, M. A., & Kogan, N. (1965). Modes of thinking in young children: A study of the creativity–intelligence distinction. New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.Google Scholar
  67. Ward, W. C. (1969). Rate and uniqueness in children’s creative responding. Child Development, 40, 869–878.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Weisberg, R. W. (2006). Creativity: Understanding innovation in problem solving, science, invention, and the arts. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.Google Scholar
  69. Worthen, B. R., & Clark, P. M. (1971). Toward an improved measure of remote associational ability. Journal of Educational Measurement, 8, 113–123.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Zhong, C.-B., Dijksterhuis, A., & Galinsky, A. D. (2008). The merits of unconscious thought in creativity. Psychological Science, 19, 912–918. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02176.x PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Roger E. Beaty
    • 1
    Email author
  • Paul J. Silvia
    • 1
  • Emily C. Nusbaum
    • 1
  • Emanuel Jauk
    • 2
  • Mathias Benedek
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of North Carolina at GreensboroGreensboroUSA
  2. 2.Department of PsychologyUniversity of GrazGrazAustria

Personalised recommendations