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7.1: Creativity- What Is It?

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    Creativity happens when someone comes up with a creative idea. An example would be a creative solution to a difficult problem. But what makes an idea or solution creative? Creativity is the ability to generate, create, or discover new ideas, solutions, and possibilities. Very creative people often have intense knowledge about something, work on it for years, look at novel solutions, seek out the advice and help of other experts, and take risks. Although creativity is often associated with the arts, it is actually a vital form of intelligence that drives people in many disciplines to discover something new. Creativity can be found in every area of life, from the way you decorate your residence to a new way of understanding how a cell works.

    Although psychologists have offered several definitions of creativity (Plucker, Beghetto, & Dow, 2004; Runco & Jaeger, 2012), probably the best definition is the one recently adapted from the three criteria that the U.S. Patent Office uses to decide whether an invention can receive patent protection (Simonton, 2012).

    The first criterion is originality. The idea must have a low probability. Indeed, it often should be unique. Albert Einstein’s special theory of relativity certainly satisfied this criterion. No other scientist came up with the idea.

    The second criterion is usefulness. The idea should be valuable or work. For example, a solution must, in fact, solve the problem. An original recipe that produces a dish that tastes too terrible to eat cannot be creative. In the case of Einstein’s theory, his relativity principle provided explanations for what otherwise would be inexplicable empirical results.

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    Figure 2. Even with the three criteria for creativity (originality, usefulness, and surprise), determining whether art is “creative” can prove difficult. Especially with all the examples of artists whose work wasn’t deemed creative until after their deaths. [Image: Linus Bohman]

    The third and last criterion is surprise. The idea should be surprising, or at least nonobvious (to use the term used by the Patent Office). For instance, a solution that is a straightforward derivation from acquired expertise cannot be considered surprising even if it were original.

    Einstein’s relativity theory was not a step-by-step deduction from classical physics but rather the theory was built upon a new foundation that challenged the very basis of traditional physics. When applying these three criteria, it is critical to recognize that originality, usefulness, and surprise are all quantitative rather than qualitative attributes of an idea. Specifically, we really have to speak of degree to which an idea satisfies each of the three criteria. In addition, the three attributes should have a zero point, that is, it should be possible to speak of an idea lacking any originality, usefulness, or surprise whatsoever. Finally, we have to assume that if an idea scores zero on any one criterion then it must have zero creativity as well. For example, someone who reinvents the wheel is definitely producing a useful idea, but the idea has zero originality and hence no creativity whatsoever. Similarly, someone who invented a parachute made entirely out of steel reinforced concrete would get lots of credit for originality—and surprise!—but none for usefulness.

    Definitions of Creativity

    We already introduced a lot of ways to solve a problem, mainly strategies that can be used to find the “correct” answer. But there are also problems which do not require a “right answer” to be given - It is time for creative productiveness! Imagine you are given three objects – your task is to invent a completely new object that is related to nothing you know. Then try to describe its function and how it could additionally be used. Difficult? Well, you are free to think creatively and will not be at risk to give an incorrect answer. For example think of what can be constructed from a half-sphere, wire and a handle. The result is amazing: a lawn lounger, global earrings, a sled, a water weigher, a portable agitator, ... [10]

    Divergent Thinking

    The term divergent thinking describes a way of thinking that does not lead to one goal, but is open-ended. Problems that are solved this way can have a large number of potential 'solutions' of which none is exactly 'right' or 'wrong', though some might be more suitable than others.

    Solving a problem like this involves indirect and productive thinking and is mostly very helpful when somebody faces an ill-defined problem, i.e. when either initial state or goal state cannot be stated clearly and operators or either insufficient or not given at all.

    The process of divergent thinking is often associated with creativity, and it undoubtedly leads to many creative ideas. Nevertheless, researches have shown that there is only modest correlation between performance on divergent thinking tasks and other measures of creativity.

    Additionally it was found that in processes resulting in original and practical inventions things like searching for solutions, being aware of structures and looking for analogies are heavily involved, too. Thus, divergent thinking alone is not an appropriate tool for making an invention. You also need to analyze the problem in order to make the suggested, i.e. invention, solution appropriate.

    Convergent Thinking

    Divergent can be contrasted by convergent thinking - thinking that seeks to find the correct answer to a specific problem. This is an adequate strategy for solving most of the well-defined problems (problems with given initial state, operators and goal state) we presented so far. To solve the given tasks it was necessary to think directly or reproductively.

    It is always helpful to use a strategy to think of a way to come closer to the solution, perhaps using knowledge from previous tasks or sudden insight.

    Remote Associates Test & Unusual Uses Task:

    Cognitive scientists have long been interested in the thinking processes that lead to creative ideas. Indeed, many so-called “creativity tests” are actually measures of the thought processes believed to underlie the creative act. The following two measures are among the best known. The first is the Remote Associates Test, or RAT, that was introduced by Mednick. Mednick believed that the creative process requires the ability to associate ideas that are considered very far apart conceptually. The RAT consists of items that require the respondent to identify a word that can be associated to three rather distinct stimulus words. For example, what word can be associated with the words “widow, bite, monkey”? The answer is spider (black widow spider, spider bite, spider monkey). This question is relatively easy, others are much more difficult, but it gives you the basic idea.

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    Figure 31. What do you see? An ordinary piece of building material? Those who score higher on the Unusual Uses Task are able to imagine many possibilities for the humble brick. [Image: CC0 Public Domain, goo.gl/m25gce]

    The second measure is the Unusual Uses Task. Here, the participant is asked to generate alternative uses for a common object, such as a brick. The responses can be scored on four dimensions: (a) fluency, the total number of appropriate uses generated; (b) originality, the statistical rarity of the uses given; (c) flexibility, the number of distinct conceptual categories implied by the various uses; and (d) elaboration, the amount of detail given for the generated uses. For example, using a brick as a paperweight represents a different conceptual category that using its volume to conserve water in a toilet tank.

    The capacity to produce unusual uses is but one example of the general cognitive ability to engage in divergent thinking (Guilford, 1967). Unlike convergent thinking, which converges on the single best answer or solution, divergent thinking comes up with multiple possibilities that might vary greatly in usefulness. Unfortunately, many different cognitive processes have been linked to creativity (Simonton & Damian, 2013). That is why we cannot use the singular; there is no such thing as the “creative process.” Nonetheless, the various processes do share one feature: All enable the person to “think outside the box” imposed by routine thinking—to venture into territory that would otherwise be ignored (Simonton, 2011). Creativity requires that you go where you don’t know where you’re going.


    This page titled 7.1: Creativity- What Is It? is shared under a CC BY license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Mehgan Andrade and Neil Walker.

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