A measure of creativity

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Anthropology / Myths / Psychology

Are you creative? Many people believe everyone is creative. But how do we define creativity and how can we measure it?

What’s creative thinking anyway? Image credit Axel Tafernervia Flickr

What’s creativity?

Creativity is a fascinating thing. We all have an idea of what it means to be creative – perhaps you’re thinking of Leonardo Da Vinci or Steve Jobs. But coming up with a solid definition of creativity has proven challenging. Most researchers use the words ‘new’ and ‘useful’ to describe creative thoughts, ideas and actions. Sir Ken Robinson defines creativity as the process of having original ideas that have value.

Many researchers agree creative people simply see more possibilities than others. So it makes sense that one of the most common ways scientists assess a person’s creativity are tests of divergent thinking.

Creative thinking

Convergent thinking, one aspect of being creative, is the ability to come up with the one right answer to a problem. Divergent thinking is coming up with as many solutions to a question or problem as possible. Psychologist J. P Guilford coined these terms in the 1950s. And although creativity and divergent thinking aren’t the same thing, most people agree the ability to think outside the box is an important part of being creative.

One popular divergent thinking test is known as the alternate uses test. You get two minutes to come up with as many uses as you can for an everyday object like a paperclip, cardboard box or fork. You’re scored on how many uses you can come up with, how unusual these uses are, how detailed your ideas are and how many different categories they fall into. Most adults come up with 10 or 15 uses; people who blitz the test might think of 200.

One of the most well-known studies exploring divergent thinking followed a group of children starting in kindergarten. At that age, 98% of the kids scored at the top of the charts in divergent thinking. Five years later, half of the same kids made the cut and at age fifteen, only 10% of them showed the same high level of divergent thinking.

If we accept that our ability to think creatively in this way declines as we age, it’s worth thinking about ways we might be able to increase divergent thinking.

Dark, messy, on a treadmill, or sleepy

There has been plenty of research exploring what factors lead to more divergent thinking. One study found dim lighting reduces distractions and leads to a feeling of being free from constraints. People working in darkness were more creative in their thinking.

Walking also influences our ability to think outside the box. More than three-quarters of people scored higher on the alternate uses test after walking, even if the walking was done on a treadmill. But walking outside led to the most original thinking.

Another study found working in a neat, clean ordered environment leads to healthier snack choices and people being willing to give more money to charity. But people who work in a cluttered, messy environment were better at coming up with more ideas, and more creative ideas.

Spending time living overseas and meditation also appear to lead to more divergent thinking. And people who listen to ‘positive’ classical music (Vivaldi’s Four Seasons) do better on divergent thinking tests than people who do the same tests in silence.

One study involved half of the participants going 32 hours (one night) without sleep before taking divergent thinking tests. Unsurprisingly, not getting enough sleep had a clear detrimental effect on creative thinking. Worth remembering if you’re considering an all-nighter. (Although a different study found people are more creative at solving problems at a time of day when they feel tired).

A creative placebo

What if simply believing you’re creative allowed you to think more creatively? One fascinating study found that asking people to ‘take on’ a stereotype of either an ‘eccentric poet’ or ‘rigid librarian’ had a big effect on their performance in an alternate uses test. Students who imagined themselves to be poets while they were doing the test were much better at thinking divergently than those who put themselves in librarians’ shoes.

A study published this year showed the placebo effect also has a role to play in creative thinking. Ninety students were asked to sniff a cinnamon-like substance and half were told this substance had been designed to enhance creativity. Of course in truth, there is no such thing.

But sure enough, the students who had sniffed the supposed creativity elixir were much better at coming up with alternate uses for shoes, nails and buttons. They also did better on other divergent thinking tests than the students who hadn’t been told the odour increases creativity.

So although many of us think, or have been told, we aren’t creative, clearly we just need to believe we are.

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