Free Association Ability Distinguishes Highly Creative Artists From Scientists: Findings From the Big-C Project

Hannah M. Merseal, Simone Luchini, Yoed N. Kenett, Kendra Knudsen, Robert M. Bilder, Roger E. Beaty

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


The associative theory posits that creativity relates to people’s ability to connect remote associations to form new ideas, based on the structure of their semantic memory. This theory has spurred several recent studies connecting semantic memory structure and associative thinking to creativity, capitalizing on advances in computational methods. To date, however, this research has almost exclusively focused on assessing creativity in the general population (e.g., assessed via divergent thinking tests), with far less work examining the role of associative thinking in eminently-creative individuals across the arts and sciences. Leveraging data collected as part of the Big-C Project—a sample of world-renowned visual artists (VIS) and scientists, and an intelligence-matched comparison group—we tested whether the ability to generate remote word associations differs as a function of creative expertise. Specifically, we used distributional semantic models to calculate the semantic distance of word associations across three conditions: a free association condition and two goal-directed conditions (common association and uncommon association). We found an interaction between domain expertise and association condition: while artists generated more distant associations overall, this effect was driven by substantially more distant responses in the free association condition. Our findings indicate that VIS spontaneously produce more remote associations—potentially due to a more interconnected semantic memory network structure—but that creative expertise is less relevant for producing associations that require goal-directed cognitive search. The findings are interpreted in the context of the ongoing debate on the domain-generality and domain-specificity of creativity.

Original languageEnglish
JournalPsychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts
StateAccepted/In press - 2023
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2023 American Psychological Association


Roger E. Beaty is supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation (DRL-1920653). Robert M. Bilder is supported by grants from the National Institute of Mental Health (R01MH118514, R01MH114152) and the National Endowment for the Arts (1862904-38-C), and by the Michael E. Tennenbaum Family Foundation.

FundersFunder number
Michael E. Tennenbaum Family Foundation
National Science FoundationDRL-1920653
National Institute of Mental HealthR01MH114152, R01MH118514
National Endowment for the Arts1862904-38-C


    • domain-specific creativity
    • expertise
    • free association
    • semantic memory


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