Creativity has long been considered tough to quantify. But an international cohort of researchers from McGill University, Harvard University, and the University of Melbourne are tackling that challenge with a recent study that claims a four-minute test could reveal how much creative potential lies within.
Here’s how it works: 1) Take a seat. 2) Think of 10 words that are as wildly unrelated—in definition, category, or concept—as possible. 3) Input here.
That’s it—the rest is algorithmic magic. The test, which is called the Divergent Association Task, then employs a computational program that measures the “semantic distance” between the words. For example: The words “cat” and “dog,” which are different but somewhat related, would have a shorter semantic distance than the words “cat” and “tunnel,” which bear fewer links.
According to researchers, people who can conjure up words with greater semantic distance might objectively be more creative. So if your words were “green,” “blue,” and “purple,” you might be deemed less creative than if your words were “sashay,” “gumption,” and “leaf.”
Results of the Divergent Association Task (DAT) appeared to match results that study participants received from two other well-established creativity barometers (the Alternative Uses Task and the Bridge-the-Associative Gap Task), suggesting it’s at least as effective. But the DAT is simpler and more elegant than many traditional creativity tests, which require time-intensive and subjective scoring systems. Such systems also make multicultural assessments tricky, but according to study authors, when the DAT was given to 8,500 participants across 98 countries, semantic distances varied only slightly by demographic, suggesting the test does not harbor significant demographic bias and can be used with diverse populations.
The DAT, however, does not divine creativity in umbrella terms, but rather tests one specific type of creativity: divergent thinking, which is the capacity to generate an array of diverse solutions to an open-ended problem. (Another type, convergent thinking, involves deriving the best solution to a problem after calculating multiple factors.) According to Jay Olson, the creator of the DAT, that’s just a “sliver”—but it’s the first step toward understanding creativity more broadly, and subsequently, how it might be cultivated in the minds of the next generation.
“Creativity is fundamental to human life,” said Olsen, who is a doctoral graduate of McGill’s Department of Psychiatry and a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard. “The more we understand its complexity, the better we can foster creativity in all its forms.”
The study was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.