Can Creativity Be Scientifically Measured?


It’s essentially the biggest problem in creativity science: can you accurately measure creativity? If you think about it, if the answer is no then the scientific validity of much of its research would be inherently dubious. So many years ago those working in the field answered yes and, frankly, just went with it.

How then do creativity scientists measure creativity? The three most used tests have been J.P. Guilford’s Alternative Uses Task (GAUT), the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking (TTCT) devised by Paul Torrance and which built on the GAUT, and Sarnoff Mednick’s Remote Associates Test (RAT). The truth is, while these tests may be able to accurately measure certain aspects of creativity, it’s seriously unlikely whether they are really able to measure one’s creative faculty as a whole in any plausible way.

Let me show why this is the case by looking at just one of these, which is possibly the best known – the GAUT. The challenge is to name as many non-standard uses for an object such as a brick (which is why it is sometimes called the Brick Test), a paperclip or a shoe, in a set time, typically two or three minutes.

Some versions of the test just measure the number of alternative uses respondents can think of – in the case of the brick, for instance, you might say:

  • A weapon

  • A doorstop

  • To throw through a window to break into a house

Those able to think of three or four obviously score lower than those able to think of ten or fifteen. Another version of the test refines the results based on four criteria:

Fluency – as above, the number of answers, the more the better.

Originality – answers compared with those given by others in the study, so similar or common answers (e.g. a weapon, which crops up almost every time) will score low whereas unusual or unique answers (e.g. a replacement tooth for a brick monster) will score high.

Flexibility – use of different behavioural or conceptual domains, the more diverse the better. Weapon and doorstop are very different kinds of use, whereas weapon and house-breaking tool are similar.

Elaboration – amount of detail given, e.g. “as a doorstop” scores lower than “as a doorstop for a draughty house”.

The problem is that whether you use only fluency (sheer number of answers) or all four criteria, the test provides no way to assess the true ingenuity of a given answer.

Let’s say you come up with an above average number of answers (scoring high on fluency), offer lots of unique answers (scoring high on originality), use a more diverse range than average of domains (scoring high on flexibility) and provide lots of extra information on your answers (scoring high on elaboration). So for instance you might say:

  • A weapon

  • A doorstop

  • A paperweight

  • A pumice stone for rough skin

  • To throw through a window to break into a house

  • A seat for someone with an ample bottom

  • A helmet for when it’s raining hailstones

  • Ballast for a ship

  • Ballast for a hot air balloon

  • To help a gymnast secretly balance on a balance beam

  • A juggling object for a clown

  • A booster for a photographer to raise the height of a short person in a group shot

  • An improvised weight-training weight

  • To put in your swimming costume to weigh you down and create resistance, improving your cardio workout

  • Skis for a midwinter town centre emergency

The experimenter confides that you scored higher than average, and you walk away feeling pretty good about yourself, strangely hoping it will hail.

Then some smart-ass comes along with a bad attitude, a raised eyebrow and a smirk and provides just one answer – one alternative use. But it’s a good one. Here are some such ‘alternative uses for a brick’ I thought of which I think are more interesting and inventive than typical responses, even of the apparently more imaginative variety:

(Note: explanations typically kill the magic of an idea or the comedy of a joke, so I’d love to let these ideas speak for themselves, but since I want to make a clear point I provide the logic where necessary in case the meaning is not immediately comprehensible.)

  • Tap it rhythmically to make house music (metaphorically linking brick and house).

  • As a pure mental construction (linking brick with an imaginary construct and the construction industry)

  • To bludgeon an experimenter slowly to death (said looking blankly at the experimenter asking you the question)

  • As the building block for an experiment about creativity (linking brick with the idea of a building block, which also means the basis of something)

  • To build a house someone could actually afford to buy (paradoxically referencing the obvious use for a brick but challenging that very function in light of today’s astronomical house prices)

  • As a tongue piercing (playing with ‘alternative use’ by drawing on ‘alternative culture’ which typically includes piercing various parts of the body)

  • As a temporary tattoo stamp (ditto)

  • To build a poem. With ironic foundations. How ‘bout a haiku? (A haiku is a traditional Japanese poem with three lines containing five then seven then five syllables)

  • To make an anagram of CKRIB

  • Eat it. It’s a Wall’s ice cream (metaphorically linking brick and wall via the Wall’s ice cream brand)

  • To scrape the barrel (said at end of your list, especially if you have been getting desperate, ahem)

If you offered just one of these answers (as your only response) you would receive a woefully low score on the test. Science would therefore have measured you as not very creative. But I think you will have done more in that one answer to show you are creative than anyone giving a long list of typical answers.

While it may be theoretically possible to measure creativity, these kinds of tests seem to me to be inadequate. A very different approach, that of using people tojudge creative ideas as Teresa Amabile does with her Consensual Assessment Technique, has a lot going for it. Its intrinsic subjectivity may mean its findings will perhaps forever remain quasi-scientific, but that's probably where creativity will always have to remain - straddling science and art. And maybe that's not a bad thing.

Michael BloomfieldComment