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Portrait of an Alien

How Western and Eastern Cultures Influence Creativity and Perceptions

Wikimedia Commons

What is creativity? We seem to understand the concept intuitively, and yet there is no exact definition of creativity. It is no wonder, then, that in making his documentary film Why Are We Creative? German director Hermann Vaske received a wide variety of definitions in interviews with talented people ranging from Nobel Prize winners and Umberto Eco to David Bowie and Quentin Tarantino. Is an unequivocal definition even possible? And which work of art is more creative—one that boldly rejects old canons in of originality or one that ingeniously transforms them?

The answer to that question is closely related to cultural differences. The concept of creativity varies by culture, and this is reflected in the results of creative activity. This fact was confirmed by researchers from the HSE Laboratory for Creativity and Multilingualism who studied creative assignments carried out by students from Russia and the United Arab Emirates.

Fleeting Beauty

Expert opinions about creativity are one thing, but the opinions of amateurs are quite another. The former rely on an explicit theory of creativity based on scientific reflection and expertise, while the latter stem from implicit understandings.

An implicit theory of creativity presupposes a priori, commonly held intuitive ideas rather than clearly articulated concepts. Interestingly, creative people themselves often formulate their ideas about creativity in very general terms.

However, if such understandings remain unspoken and not explicitly expressed, how can they be studied empirically? By their creative manifestation—that is, by the artworks themselves—or else through evaluations and judgments of creative works, whether one’s own or those of others.

Note that the subjective perception of this or that artwork can be devastating for the artist who created it. The engineer Gustave Eiffel was one of the lucky ones: his metal tower, although criticised at first, was eventually recognised and became a symbol of Paris. The Impressionists were not well-received in their time, but for decades now have been seen as a symbol of brilliant innovation in painting. Others, however, lose the desire to create after a flurry of criticism.

The public as a whole can debate certain innovative works. For example, Big Clay #4 by Swiss sculptor Urs Fischer sparked a fierce controversy in the media and social networks, with everyone from specialists to lay people weighing in.

All passions aside, in the polemics over a particular work, each party tries to convince the others that their judgments regarding a work’s originality and aesthetic qualities are correct. Implicit theories of creativity also become manifest in this way.

Canons: Rejecting vs. Transforming

But what is the nature of a non-specialist’s judgments about creativity? They reflect both a person’s own ideas and the cultural environment in which he lives: attitudes, norms, practices, etc. — and they vary significantly in different cultures, as does the concept of creativity itself. A study by Anatoly Kharkhurin and his colleagues showed how cultural differences are manifested when people evaluate creative works.

The research was funded by the Human Capital Multidisciplinary Research Center.

The different understandings of creativity in the East and West are typical (even if they are somewhat arbitrary and generalised). The societies of Eastern countries are associated with collectivism, interdependence and an emphasis on common interests over personal ones, whereas Western societies focus on individualism, independence and personal achievements.

In the Western understanding, creativity implies originality, novelty and uniqueness, for the sake of which previous canons can be rejected. The Eastern concept of creativity is based on the ability to creatively interpret existing traditions (and on giving equal importance to the aesthetic side). This is true, for example, of traditional Chinese painting and Arabic calligraphy: time-tested ideas can be modified somewhat to reflect the artist’s personal vision.

In the present study, researchers identify cultural differences in the way university students from Russia and the UAE assessed creative works. In this case, the UAE students represent Eastern culture and Russian students Western. The researchers explain this view of Russian culture by the country’s fairly rapid assimilation of Western values and its transition to ‘a less collectivist and more democratic society’.

This choice of countries fills a gap in the scientific literature because few studies of ‘Western’ perceptions of creativity look at Russians: attention is most often focused in this regard on Europeans and Americans. At the same time, the Middle East was underrepresented in studies on the concept of creativity.

The Imaginarium Game

For the first stage of the study, Anatoly Kharkhurin and his colleagues Sergey Yagolkovsky and Morteza Charkhabi used the Thomas Ward Structured Imagination Test, asking HSE students aged 17-21 and American University of Sharjah students aged 17-23 to draw a space alien. The test assessed the respondents’ ability to overcome their structured imaginations that usually limit non-standard thinking and attempts at fantasy.

The students were asked to imagine, draw and describe a creature living on another planet. They were allowed to fantasise without restriction: the drawings could be as unusual as they wanted. They had 12 minutes to complete the task.

Next, other project participants from the same countries evaluated the images of aliens made by the Russian and Emirati respondents. For this purpose, 50 works were selected from the representatives of each country. The researchers hypothesised that the two groups would evaluate the drawings differently. The Russian ‘jury’ consisted of 53 students aged 17-20. The same number made up the Emirati ‘jury’, but their ages ranged from 17 to 26.


Each image was judged for creativity: by how much its features varied from the standard form of the usual anthropomorphic or zoomorphic representation and the overall degree of creativity. The images were also correlated with the constants, or elements that most frequently appear in most respondents’ work — namely, bilateral symmetry, two eyes and four limbs.

Deviations from the familiar traits were given a rating of from 0 to 2 points, with 2 indicating the greatest deviation. Then the scores for the three constants were added. Six points was the maximum possible and indicated that the alien was some sort of ‘unrecognisable creature’.

As a simple example, if a respondent drew an alien puppy that looked a lot like an earth puppy, the image was given 0 points. An alien puppy with the same two eyes, four legs and bilateral symmetry demonstrates almost no non-standard thinking. If however, the drawing showed a puppy with an alternative appearance — one that is symmetric (0 points), but that has several eyes, seven limbs and stands upright, the image would get 4 points for originality.

Judging the Works

‘Jury’ members from the two countries were tasked with evaluating the level of creativity of each drawing. ‘We used the scores for deviation from the constant as a covariate. The cultural group was the independent variable and the dependent was the assessment of the creativity of the drawings’, said Anatoly Kharkhurin. Explanatory notes were removed from the images so that judges could not determine who drew which picture.

Images perceived as more creative received higher ratings. Next, the average rating by the Russian and Emirati participants was obtained. (see Table 1).

Table 1. Average number of points awarded for the creativity of drawings made by respondents from two countries


Assessors (country)

Authors of drawings (country) Russia UAE








Source: A study by A. Kharkhurin and S. Yagolkovsky.

As you can see, the Russian jury awarded points much more generously than did their Emirati counterparts. The Russian students also earned higher scores from both the Russian and Emirati judges, garnering 3.12 and 2.54 points from them respectively, as compared to 2.33 and 1.94 points for the UAE students.

The Russians turned out to be noticeably more supportive of their compatriots, giving them 3.12 points as compared to 1.94 for the Emirati students, and the Emirati judges gave higher marks to Russian students (2.54 points) than to their own (2.33 points).

All of these results can be explained by differences in the results of the Structured Imagination Test and in the assessment procedure among samples of participants from the two countries. The Russians scored significantly more points than their Emirati counterparts for the novelty of their drawings. The Emirati judges gave their lowest marks for originality to their compatriots.

This confirmed the hypothesis that representatives of different cultural groups perceive the same creative works in different ways. But where do such different perceptions come from?

Imagination (without) Boundaries

The answer probably lies in the differing perceptions of the creative value of violating canons. When drawing aliens, UAE students generally deviated from constant features less frequently than did Russian students. This might be because Emirati students were less approving of a creative task that called for breaking the rules. Note that the Emirati jury was also more reserved overall in scoring students’ work.

Project participants from the UAE might have considered the more unusual drawings less appealing and less aesthetic and, therefore, evaluated them as less creative. This was confirmed by an additional analysis that found a significant correlation for Russian project participants between scores for deviating from the norm and those for creative work, but a weak correlation for the same indicators among Emirati participants. That is, Russians saw greater flights of fancy as being more creative.

Creative daring thus appears to be a key feature of creativity in the Western, but not in the Eastern tradition. Researchers distinguish between horizontal and vertical traditions with regard to creating a work of art. The former is typical of Western culture and assumes that the symbols, methods and goals of art are subject to modification or even radical change.

The latter, vertical tradition is more inherent in Eastern cultures. It imposes certain restrictions on the content and techniques used in artworks and emphasises a work’s aesthetic value. The Western view of creativity, as already mentioned, is based on novelty and the violation of canons whereas the Eastern view seems to emphasise harmony with those standards. This is why Russians, as representatives of Western culture in this project, could place a higher value on expressions of unstructured and unrestrained imagination than the people of the UAE did, and gave the highest scores to the most unusual works.

A Limit to the Differences

The question remains, however, as to why, given all the cultural differences in their perceptions of creativity, the Russian and Emirati juries largely agreed in their assessment of the Russian works and gave them higher scores. This might be because the two cultural groups used similar criteria in making their assessments.

Thus, the researchers found a certain agreement between Americans and Greeks in assessing the aesthetic qualities of creative works. They hypothesised that the two cultures share criteria and aesthetic sensibilities in evaluating artistic works. American and Greek cultures are undoubtedly more similar than are the Russian and Arab cultures. Nevertheless, the conclusion about shared aesthetic sensibilities is very relevant.

There is another factor that might explain the consensus. Most assessment methods are based on the Western concept of creativity, with its emphasis on originality of thought. Often, the creative principles inherent in other cultures are simply not taken into account, leading to a Western ‘bias’ that gives higher scores to works by Russian students and lower marks to those by Emirati students.

‘If you think about it, the test itself reflects the “Western” view of creativity (and already contains a bias)’, Anatoly Kharkhurin commented. ‘Therefore, the Russians, with their inherently more Western outlook, rated both their own and others’ higher than did the participants from the UAE did. And the Russians’ drawings deviated more from the norm and were therefore rated higher. Nobody even knew that the drawings were produced in different countries’.

The researchers explained that Russians gave higher marks to the works of their compatriots because people tend to manifest their cultural attitudes not only in artistic expression, but also in the way they evaluate creative works. This is why the jury gave higher scores to compatriots that were culturally close to them without even realising it.

Built-in Settings

Because the study involved non-specialists, it can be assumed that judgments about the drawings were based on implicit theories of creativity among the respondents. And because the experiment confirmed that the socio-cultural context could influence the assessment of creative works, it means that it could also influence the implicit theory of creativity.

Now the research can pursue another line of development. Cultural variations in the implicit theory of creativity imply that people with different cultural backgrounds might offer different explicit definitions of creativity. It would be interesting to see how these differences are reflected in the creation and perception of artwork. It would be possible to analyse the definitions of creativity given by representatives of different cultural groups and correlate them with their assessments of this or that artwork’s creative ‘punch’.

One more note in conclusion: we must be prepared to acknowledge works that representatives of other cultures create, whether it is a monumental sculpture, a film or a modest graphic image. We must understand that certain artistic guidelines are built into a particular work from the very beginning, and take these into account when judging the work.

Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, January 10