• Robb G. Best

Creativity Crunching: How Do We Measure Human Ingenuity?

Scientists trying to get to the core of creativity encounter a very basic problem at the outset. Unlike, say, size, or time, creativity is extremely difficult to measure. It’s even difficult to define.

Frequently, people searching for a creativity-judging metric focus on what’s called “divergent thinking”. This is the ability to come up with a large number of solutions to a given problem. It’s the “no wrong answers” school of brainstorming. Divergent thinking is all about casting the widest possible net, and then gauging success from overall net size.

There are arguably some benefits to this approach. For one thing, since divergent thinking concerns itself with the sheer amount of ideas generated, measuring it is as simple as counting.

What do these experiments look like? Imagine someone hands you a paper cup and asks you to think of as many uses for that cup as you can. Someone with a knack for divergent thinking would be off and running: a drinking vessel, a fly catcher, a drain stop, a place to store crayons, a hat, and so on. One of the standard divergent testing questions is, “How many uses can you devise for a brick?”

This approach lets scientists easily assign scores to large groups of test subjects, generating huge amounts of easy-to-interpret data. Assuming, of course, that divergent thinking is a useful lens for examining creativity in the first place.

If you’ve ever walked out of a “no wrong answers” brainstorming session feeling unsatisfied, you may already grasp the controversy at play here.

Some scientists dismiss the relevance of divergent thinking, arguing that, at the very least, it’s not a useful way to assess a person’s creativity. Sure, it’s easy to compare one person's score to another, but it’s difficult to prove that high scorers here are more creative in real-life situations.

For one thing, divergent thinking tests don’t seem to have any correlation with a person’s future creativity. There isn’t much evidence that finding many uses for a brick one day translates into any creative advantage later in life.

And outside of a testing facility, most of the time, solutions only count as solutions if they’re actually useful. In other words, a paper cup would make a terrible hat.

In addition, most people would agree that when we judge a person's creative output, quality trumps quantity. Originality or novelty is considered an essential part of the mix. Judging someone’s creativity only by their number of ideas is like saying that Nora Roberts, who has published a massive amount of books—over 200—is a more creative writer than Maya Angelou.

To add another wrinkle, University of Iowa neuroscientist Nancy C. Andreasen suggests that the human race might owe far more of its creative achievements to convergent thinking, the direct opposite of the divergent approach. Convergent thinking doesn’t concern itself with finding a lot of answers, but with winnowing down to the single best solution. “A process,” she notes in an article in The Atlantic, “that led to Newton’s recognition of the physical formulae underlying gravity, and Einstein’s recognition that E=mc 2.” But nobody is clamoring to test for convergent thinking. It’s tough to know just how to tally it.


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