Creativity is a uniquely human quality that’s difficult to define and, perhaps, even harder to objectively measure.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that scientists haven’t tried, and a study published in June in the journal PNAS proposes a new and surprisingly simple test to gauge this ability.
It only takes a few minutes and involves thinking of 10 nouns that are unrelated to one another and as far apart in meaning as possible. Your score reveals how creative you are, said Jay Olson, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University, who came up with the concept and is one of the study authors.
“The task can be objectively and automatically scored, meaning that it does not need people to subjectively score the responses,” he said. “It is also faster to complete than most other creativity measures; many people complete it in under two minutes.”
Curious? You can take the test here.
The test specifically measures one component of creativity called divergent thinking, which is the ability to generate diverse solutions to open-ended problems. It doesn’t measure another component – what psychologists call convergent thinking, or solving problems considering various constraints.
“The test measures divergent thinking and verbal creativity, which are important but limited aspects of overall creativity. Our task won’t predict your creative culinary skills, but it will predict performance on various types of problem-solving, which suggests it is doing more than simply measuring vocabulary,” Olson said.
“Still, we’ll need future research to assess how our task relates to other verbal abilities or intelligence more broadly.”
While the test is simple, the scoring is more complex and involves computing the average “semantic distance” (or relatedness) of the listed words, Olson said. To calculate this, the researchers used a database that infers the semantic distances of thousands of words based on their usage across billions of webpages.
True measure of creativity?
Performance on the Divergent Association Task (DAT), as the new test is called, correlated with two existing measures of creativity the study, which also included researchers from McGill University in Canada and the University of Melbourne in Australia, found:
1) The Alternative Uses Task, which asks you to list novel uses of a common object – such as a paper clip. Raters then judge the proposed uses based on their originality (how rare they are relative to other people’s responses) or flexibility (how many different categories of uses are listed).
2) The Bridge-the-Associative-Gap Task, a test of convergent thinking in which participants see two words (e.g., giraffe and scarf) and need to find a third one that relates to both (e.g., neck). Raters then judged the appropriateness of the provided words.
Another benefit of DAT, Olson said, is the automatic nature of the test, which doesn’t involve any other people giving a subjective score, which can introduce bias.
A true measure of creativity would also include real-world achievements in creative fields like music, compositions, inventions or scientific patents, as well as task-based measures, such as the tests mentioned above.
In the study, which included nearly 9,000 participants ages 7 to 70, the researchers found that scores were higher for participants in their 20s than those in other age groups and slightly higher for women, but overall demographic differences in performance were very small.
“Our results suggest that age, gender and location are not limiting factors: Almost anyone can be creative,” Olson said. “Having more methods to measure creativity means that we can better assess the success of various different methods to promote and nurture creativity.”
Is creativity innate or can you work on it?
Disappointed with a low score? Want to be more creative?
Ellen Langer, a professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University and author of “On Becoming an Artist: Reinventing Yourself Through Mindful Creativity,” said that creativity isn’t the realm of a few special, talented people. It’s something everyone is capable of, no matter what they do.
She links creativity with mindfulness – firing up our neurons by actively noticing new things as we go about our daily routines. Plus, it’s necessary to embrace uncertainty and the idea that there is not always a correct answer, said Langer, who wasn’t involved in the research on measuring creativity.
For example, she said, we’re taught in school that 1+1=2, but that answer doesn’t apply to a pile of laundry or two pieces of chewing gum.
“People are very afraid of doing the wrong thing or of not knowing something but facts aren’t context free,” Langer said.
“It’s important to recognize that everything is always changing,” she added. “We get trapped in prior understandings, and this cuts off the ability to be creative. You need to exploit the power of uncertainty.”
Too often, Langer said, creativity is viewed as an end product – a book, a piece of music or a work of art – that is critically evaluated and judged. But the best way to foster creativity is to pay attention to the process and not be afraid of not knowing the answer.
“Creativity is the production of something novel. When you’re being mindful, you produce something that is novel for you.”