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Obstacles with Defining and Measuring Creativity and Creative Thinking

Obstacles with Defining and Measuring Creativity and Creative Thinking

Measuring creativity brings us back to the difficulties surrounding even defining creativity. By its nature, a set definition of creativity is, itself, rigid and inherently uncreative. We discussed that the notions of new and different play into the definitions commonly accepted, and these end up being a part of any test or assessment that attempts to measure or quantify creativity on any level.

The desire to measure creativity is vested in the desire to hire and entrust people with work that requires, or at the very least, benefits from a creative mind. Business and the arts want to have some idea of the levels of creativity in an individual they are considering bringing onto a team or project.

Testing creativity falls often to the realm of psychology. Sometimes certain mental disorders or mental divergence manifest as higher creativity scores on certain formal batteries. This probably is not the best endorsement of a creative mind or the process of measuring creativity, but it shows the complicated implications of testing something like creativity.

Creativity in Psychology

Some of the early studies of creativity in psychology were of interest to the military, due to its need for quick, creative minds in positions that required fast thinking, on-the-spot decision making, and multi-level problem solving. As the technology in the armed forces became more advanced and diversified, the type of person needed for various fields changed, too. Creativity, as a broad concept, played a role in what type of individuals were likely to find success in this changing environment. There was some indication that game play, including video games, improved a number of desirable skills in pilots, drone operators, and other emerging positions.


Creativity measurement in education circles has been swept up into the notion of giftedness. Creativity is almost seen as another level or another mode of intelligence. In some school systems, the creativity measurement that identifies what is considered to be a high level of creativity in the context of giftedness, means going to another class where higher level projects that utilize lateral thinking are incorporated into the learning. The idea is to address the particular needs of the highly gifted, or highly creative. It bears noting that all students, regardless of their scores on whatever inventory is used to determine this giftedness, would themselves benefit from this type of work being brought into lessons.

Looking at items that give a useful indication or measurement of creativity, there are a few simple ideas that can be used to give fast feedback on the subject. One that is used often in informal settings is telling someone to think about a brick. A time limit is given, usually a minute or more. Less than five minutes is common, too. The test subject or subjects are told to list as many uses for a brick as they can think of. At the end of the time limit, the list is shared or evaluated separately. Clarification may be asked of answers that are not obviously understandable. It is important not to dismiss an item without first checking to understand its meaning.

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The next step is to categorize like answers. The test is best assessed by the number of categories, instead of the number of items. If more than one item involving the use of a brick for building are included, that counts as one response. This eliminates "building a house," "building a school," and "building a wall." Building, as a concept, represents one basic idea -- and probably the most obvious. If all of a subject's responses involve building, it does not matter if they have three of them or 30. The level of creativity is quite low. This is true, even for more diversified forms of building. "Building a retaining wall" and "building a frame for a window" may seem like more creative responses than the first list of building examples -- and arguably they could be seen that way -- but, in reality, the mode of thinking is basic and obvious. This subject, lacking any other categories, is less likely to produce creative solutions than a candidate with more categories.

If one subject says to use the brick to build a frame to look out through a wall, and another says to look through the holes in the brick, so that it shields your vision from the sun, the ideas and notions have key similarities; but the second responder gets credit for another category. The title for the category may not be clear yet, but it is clearly another mode of thought and represents another level of creative potential. If the responder then follows with a dozen more ideas that involve looking, then that is the category, and it counts as one category. If there are seven ideas that involve wearing the brick, that might be the category. The "scoring" of this test may involve some creativity, as well.

The category scoring serves an important role in drawing a meaningful measurement. It can also give some insight into a subject's creative process and their frequency of mental leaps. All of this is important in evaluating the level and flexibility of their creative thought and potential. If a subject jumps to a new category with almost every response, that clearly shows a creative range. It also probably indicates a strong capacity for lateral thinking. It may also indicate a scattered process that will require team members with other skill sets to utilize the ideas from this subject's lateral process. The Brick Test is a direct derivative of the popular Random Input method of generating ideas associated with lateral thinking. Many lateral thinkers and those that study the concept would probably be put off by the notion of attempting to quantify creativity through measurement.

On the other hand, if a candidate has over 50 responses in seven categories, that may be looked at as a solid creativity score. This person could be a valuable, balanced addition to the team. If 40 of the responses are in one category, that needs to be considered. If the heavy category is at the beginning of the list, it may mean the person takes a while to break out of a mode of thought. If it is at the end of the list, it may mean the person is prone to blocked thinking. This result of seven categories with a disproportionately heavy one may mean the subject is desperate to please evaluators and this blocks them from creative ideas. A score with thirty responses in eighteen categories would be a far more creative person by this tool.

Formal Assessment

There are limitations to this method of measurement. It is not definitive. It could be added as a piece of a formal assessment, but would not itself stand up to scientific standards of measurement. The insights and categorization are based on judgments of the assessor which him or her self may have limited creativity. The more creative and outside the box the responses of the subject, the more difficult they will be to definitively categorize. In a way, the more creative a person is, the more difficult their creativity will be to measure in any meaningful way. This is true of all assessments that attempt to test creativity by any criteria.

There are a number of formal assessments that are used to give a quantifiable score for creative thinking. Some of these date back to the World Wars through to the 1960s. Some have been updated and renamed since then. Others have been developed since that seek to test on a wider range of criteria for a more meaningful set of scores. Many of these require a psychology background and formal training to administer and score. They often have particular demands in terms of environment, timing, and prep. Other tests are available online and can give instant, if questionable, feedback on notions of creativity. These can be looked up and accessed through the proper channels. There are some key ideas involved in creativity measurement that can be of use to personal creativity and development without paying for a formal test.

Creativity assessments are often kept very simple in their structure. This may seem counter intuitive, but the simplicity actually allows the subjects to interject and demonstrate their levels of creativity more clearly in comparison to others, who might struggle with the simplicity, due to a lack of substantial prompts. Creativity measurement can benefit from not leading the subject. If the criteria are too detailed or narrow, this will dictate and channel responses along a similar course, which will make creativity harder to recognize and judge between subjects. The more open-ended the possibilities are, the more responses may vary. This alone can access greater creative potential.

Drawing Tests

Drawing tests can be particularly telling about creativity. In an artistic environment involving design or illustration, this has an obvious, direct application. It is telling about general creativity, too, though. This particular style of measurement is not necessarily concerned with drawing ability, except in cases where that skill is vital to the work. The subject and direction are more important in this mode of creativity measurement. Drawing can be evaluated in terms of its aesthetic or technical skill, but those evaluators may need to be set aside, if general creativity is more important than actual artistic ability. These tests can be as simple as, "finish the drawing," or "tell me a story beginning with these pieces as you draw." A simple start can reveal the level of the person's creativity. Failure to start, or fear to try, can be very telling in these cases, too. This form of assessment can cross over sides of the brain and access nonlinguistic forms of intelligence, too. This all has great potential for giving information about levels of creativity within an individual.

Uniqueness is a key component of understanding creativity and measurement of creativity. Creativity comes down to differences. The first person to come up with a recognized idea is considered exponentially more creative than the second, third, fourth, or tenth to develop it. Even if a person comes up with melody for a song in isolation, and it turns out to be identical, or even substantially similar, to an existing, published song, the original composer is considered creative and the second person would not get creative credit at all -- even if it could be proven to not be influenced by the original. We might concede that great minds think alike, but the second great mind is not seen with the same level of creativity. If a creativity test is given in isolation and five out of eight give one response, two give another, and the last gives a unique response, creativity will be assigned based on the difference and uniqueness. If the results prove to be reversed, the unique response is considered more creative, regardless of what it might be. Creativity is a point of comparison with other individuals and becomes meaningful in how it produces ideas different than what is given by the larger set of individuals. Creativity must be measured in relation to the frequency of others' responses, because that is what makes an idea creative in the first place. An idea alone is just that. An idea that stands alone in the groupings of other ideas can be seen as creative.

Speed and Flexibility

Another aspect that must be considered in measuring creativity is speed and flexibility. A small number of responses indicates an issue with one of the most important components of creative thinking, which is the actual generation of ideas. Coming up with one, great idea can be creative, but if that is the limit of one's capacity, it may be seen as an anomaly, as opposed to actual, creative ability. A good environment, support, and encouragement may promote creativity -- especially for those who struggle with it -- but real world conditions seldom lean toward the ideal. There is rarely enough time, and the environment may be hostile. Truly creative people sometimes thrive with competition and challenge. Even artistic personalities can be driven to greater heights when they are striving to be better than another great artist. There are many examples of this throughout history, from the Renaissance, to rivalries in rock music. Coming up with creative ideas sometimes means coming up with, and implementing, ideas faster, before a dozen other people think up a similar idea. Being able to pull off the implementation before the structure is in place, or the trail has been blazed by others doing the same thing, represents a more powerful example of innovation. Speed and flexibility are defining, measurable aspects of true, personal creativity.

Creativity reaches across groupings. This goes back to the value of categories in determining a level of creativity. Creative people invent new categories by reaching through existing groups to synthesize ideas into something unique. This is how new categories are invented out of seemingly nowhere. A measure of creativity should take into account how well, and in how many different ways, an individual can cross groupings to develop ideas that are new.


Detail is a vital component of measuring creativity. Detail may seem like a notion more closely associated with vertical thinking, but in reality, a lack of detail should indicate a possible issue with a creative process. The ability to elaborate on ideas and fill out with a range of significant details -- either to explain or to enrich a concept -- shows a layered and multi-dimensional capacity for thought. When assessing personal creativity, this level of detail, or the lack of it, should be taken into consideration.

In fiction or literary writing, this can be viewed as the difference between an idea and a story. It is the difference between a premise and a plot. A premise can be creative and unique, but if the idea ends there, with no notion of what comes next, that could be a problem with creativity. A science fiction story about children who can choose whether or not to grow up is a premise. If the individual can not see the characters or the movements of the story, the premise lacks important levels of creativity. If the characters build on the premise, but lack connections that make the premise meaningful, that shows something about creativity. If the characters are designed so their choices and actions in relation to the premise invoke emotion and access other literary notions, then that is significantly more creative. A writer who can see these connections and communicate the possibilities prior to writing the story is operating on a different level of creativity. The detail matters and tells something about the measurable creativity.


Creativity measurement can also be product based. If you want to know if someone is creative generally, or compared to others in a particular field, look at what they produce. Compare it to other examples in the field at other levels of creativity. Evaluate the work on verbal, figurative, and industry standard levels. The work obviously communicates something about the creator.

Creativity measurement has some value, but it should not be seen as a system for definitively eliminating an individual from creative work. Personal creativity can, and should, be fostered in each individual to bring out the best work from people and their teams.

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