Child's drawing
Children, young people and families, Developmental

Is creativity something you inherit from your parents?

Behavioural Genetics recently published a heritability study that explores how deeply a creative vocation sits in our DNA.

16 January 2017

By Alex Fradera

Jeb Bush’s failure to secure a Presidential triple-play is memorable perhaps because it’s an exception to a familiar routine: the family dynasty. It’s a routine especially common in the arts, where a writer’s family tree is apt to contain a couple of actors, a director, and maybe a flower arranger to boot. This might simply reflect upbringing – or maybe the powers of nepotism – but creative success also owes to temperament and talents, some of which may have their origins in our genetic makeup.

The journal Behavioural Genetics has recently published a heritability study that explores how deeply a creative vocation sits in our DNA.

Mark Roeling and his colleagues at Oxford and Vrije universities, drew on data from the Netherlands Twin Register, covering around 1800 monozygotic (identical) twins who share the same genes, and 1600 dizygotic or non-identical twins who have only 50 per cent of their DNA in common, just like non-twin siblings. The register includes information on the twins’ professions, which were coded as artistic if they fell into the categories of dance, film, music, theatre, visual arts, or writing. This applied to 233 of the individuals on the register.

The question that Roeling and his colleagues were interested in was: if an individual has an artistic profession, how likely is it that their twin does too? If the answer is the same for monozygotic and dizygotic pairs, then this would suggest genes exert no effect on the likelihood of entering a creative career – it’s all nurture. Stronger creative overlap among the identical twins, by contrast, would suggest more of a role for nature.

The team found that there was more similarity in the careers of identical twins than non-identical twins. If one identical twin had a creative career, there was a .68 per cent chance that their sibling would do too (where 1 would mean the other twin always had a creative profession), compared with a probability of just .4 for a creative non-identical twin.

This difference between identical and non-identical twins suggests that genes have a fairly large say in whether you go into a creative profession. After adjusting the results using data from non-twin siblings, the researchers estimated that the heritability of being in a creative profession is 0.7: in other words, in attempting to understand why some individuals in the sample ended up in creative careers and others didn’t, the researchers think that 70 per cent of this difference is attributable to genetic influences.

It’s worth looking at other recent studies to put this in context. Also working with data from the Netherlands Twin Register, a different research group led by Anna Vinkhuyzen at VU University found high levels of heritability (.83 ) for creative writing, including letters, manuscripts and books, but somewhat lower heritability (.56) for a fairly broad category of ‘arts’ comprising painting and acting. Meanwhile, another group headed by Christian Kandler at Universität Bielefeld used German datasets to find another reasonably large heritability estimate (.62) for “perceived” creativity, that is how highly participants rated themselves as creative or how creative they were rated by their peers.

These earlier findings tended to rely on self-report measures of participants’ thoughts on their own creativity. Kandler found a much lower heritability of .26 for what he calls “figural” creativity, measured by objective tests, such as completing partial line drawings to create objects judged as especially clear and original.

This links into earlier findings that suggested there are two dimensions to creativity: one a subjective sense of “being a creative” (or wanting to be), which tends to correlate with higher scores on the personality traits of Openness and Extraversion, and the other, actual creative ability, which tends to correlate with intelligence and can be objectively assessed through tests, such as those used in Kandler’s research on figural creativity.

The current study’s heritability of .70 finds better company among the creativity self-report measures than the much weaker heritability suggested for pure creative ability. This makes it plausible that the substantial influence that genetics appears to have on creative professions may not just be about pure creative ability, but also about the other personal characteristics that are needed to make an artistic life, such as determination and self-belief.

Further work that looks at the heritability of artistic attainments would be one way of exploring this, as would looking at time spent on creative pursuits, inside or outside of a main profession. After all, to be creative professionally takes a fair amount of luck and circumstance. To be creative in life, however, just requires you to make it a priority.

Further reading

Heritability of Working in a Creative Profession

About the author

Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) is Contributing Writer at BPS Research Digest