Be Creative Now! — The Problem with Using Insight Problems as Measures of Creativity

You know those brain teaser questions that you see in popular magazines or newspapers under the heading, “Are You Creative?” These include the ever-popular nine dot problem, the word problems with surprising solutions, and mathematical problems like ones you hear Will Shortz offer up on the Sunday Puzzle on NPR. They may be fun, but when posed as tests of creativity, these little games have always irritated me, somehow, and just yesterday I figured out why.

I was reading an article by Probst, Steward, Gruys, and Tierney about how job insecurity can have adverse effects on creativity, yet increase productivity to a degree. It is an interesting article and I don’t doubt their results, but I do have a problem with how they measured the creativity of their participants.

They did two studies testing their hypothesis that, first, in a lab setting, participants who were threatened with losing their jobs would score lower on a creativity test than those who were not threatened. Second,in another study conducted in the workplace, a survey asked participants to respond to questions about how they felt about the security of their jobs, and then a creativity test (among other measures) was completed.

In the first study they used Duncker’s old insight problem about the candle, matches, and the thumbtacks. Coincidentally, I had recently heard Daniel Pink talk about that one at Chautauqua, and it bothered me then, as well. But I couldn’t put my finger on why at the time.

In the second study they used the RAT for measuring the creativity of the participants. Both of these measures are old and well-established metrics for identifying creative behavior or creative potential. But now I know why I always have felt somehow unsatisfied at the prospect of measuring creativity in this way.

Whenever I’m confronted with the 9 dot problem, for example, I have to really strain to remember the right answer. I’ve seen it so many times that I find it really boring, but in spite of this, I always forget how to solve it. I like doing RAT type problems more, since I am more verbal than figural, but still it is annoying if I miss getting that right answer.

Do you notice anything in the previous paragraph that flies in the face what we know about creative behavior? Right! Finding the “right” answer! This is a convergent task that pretends to measure creative ability. We all know that creativity is about considering multiple options, many of which might work together in a great combination of pointers that will let us solve a problem. It isn’t about being able to do well on Puzzler questions.

In the real world, we are not put in a room and told to solve a tricky problem as fast as possible, and by the way the timer is running. Even in jobs like being an emergency room doc, or a pilot in a dangerous environment, where performance requires quick thinking and the stakes are high, people are in a context where they have accumulated much domain skill that allows them to quickly access the many options that they have and select the one or ones that they will use. They can do this in an unpremeditated, almost intuitive way, but they are at some level scanning their options and selecting among them.

The obvious creativity of Captain “Sully” Sullenberger, the airline pilot that landed his plane in the Hudson River made a quick decision to avoid crashing into a populated area, involved his using an uncannily rapid scan of his behavioral repertoire and choosing the best alternative. He deserves much credit, and he is undoubtedly a highly creative person. I’m not sure, though, that that means he can quickly solve the 9 dot problem or the candle and tacks problem (unless he had seen them before and cared enough to remember them.) It seems a trick, somehow, to ask people to do that.

If we want to see how people are creative, we should ask them to show us what they have done. We could consider a portfolio of writing or art or design. We could ask them to bring in something cool that they’ve made, and ask them to tell us about it. We could ask them to show us some of the ads they’ve created, or the patents that they’re most proud of. Not to count them up, but to be witness to the products of their creativity. With creativity, the proof is in the pudding. Not in inventories of accomplishments or personal achievements or in solving on-the-spot parlor tricks.


One Response to “Be Creative Now! — The Problem with Using Insight Problems as Measures of Creativity”

  1. Anonymous on September 27th, 2009 4:29 pm

    Very good Susan! I think you are on to something here.