• 11.26.13

Test Your Creativity With This Simple Word Exercise

When I say “banana,” what’s the first verb that comes to mind? New research explores creativity using a noun/verb exercise.

Test Your Creativity With This Simple Word Exercise
[Image: Flickr user TEDx Vancouver]

Here’s a simple, non-invasive way to test your creativity. Have a friend give you a list of 10 nouns and then write down an interesting verb that relates to each. Move through the list of nouns quickly, don’t over-think your answers, and no erasing!



The more innovative or “semantically distant” the verb, the more creative you probably are in your professional and artistic pursuits, according to a recent study published in the journal Behavior Research Methods.

In the study, 193 participants were given the noun/verb test and then asked to perform other creative tasks, like writing short stories that incorporated specific words or completing half-finished drawings. Finally, they were evaluated for outside creative endeavors like published poems, new recipes, or scientific papers. How people performed on the noun/verb test correlated with how creative they were in the other two realms.

Image: Flickr user Robert S. Donovan

In the study, participants who were given a noun, such as “coal,” came up with corresponding verbs like “mining,” “burning,” “roasting,” and “cooking.” The judges agreed that “mining” was not a very creative response, because it had “low semantic distance” from the noun. (i.e. it was an obvious, commonplace answer.) But “roasting” and “cooking,” while still relevant to the noun, were less obvious. The semantic distance was greater.

But how did the judges evaluate semantic distance or, for that matter, evaluate creativity in the more complex tasks? It’s not as though the study employed nationally renowned critics. In fact, the evaluators were undergrads!

Jeremy Gray, an associate professor of psychology at Michigan State University, co-authored the study. He readily admits that creativity is elusive. “We’re not doing a Vulcan mind-meld and seeing subjects’ creative souls,” he says. “We don’t know exactly what creativity is, but we can tell it when we see it.” So, in other words, creativity has the same definition as obscenity. Right on.

Image: Flickr user Derek Gavey

One interesting finding of the test, showed that people have the ability to switch their creativity on and off–and that whether they choose to do so is linked to social expectation. In one test condition, participants were specifically asked to come up with creative verbs, while in another condition, they were simply asked for any related verb.


“I was hoping there’d be spontaneous words in the non-creative condition. But there was no difference,” says Gray. The reason: “If you simply ask me for a verb, I won’t say something very crazy, because you’ll think I’m weird,” he says. Which means that employers need to create a culture in which creative output is explicitly encouraged. When asked to be creative, individuals with innovative ways of thinking “could rise to the occasion,” says Gray. “But the rest of the time, they were boring.”

About the author

Jennifer Miller is the author of The Year of the Gadfly (Harcourt, 2012) and Inheriting The Holy Land (Ballantine, 2005). She's a regular contributor to Co.Create.