Beautiful Minds

Musings on the many paths to greatness.

How Convergent and Divergent Thinking Foster Creativity

IQ-type reasoning is only one slice of the creativity pie.

The relationship between intelligence and creativity has long been debated and studied.

One of the hallmark tests of "general intelligence" is the Raven's Progressive Matrices Test. This test gives you a matrix of figures and you have to figure out the missing piece that completes the pattern.

Here's an example:

There are typically 8 answer options and you choose the one correct answer.

The Raven's test is strongly related to the common factor derived from performance across a wide range of IQ test items. This suggests that the form of reasoning tapped into by this test is something that cuts across different kinds of content (at least spatial, verbal, and quantitative content). Many think the kind of thinking this test measures taps into the uniquely human capacity for abstract reasoning ("fluid intelligence").

Whatever this test is really measuring, one thing is for sure: this is a test of convergent thinking. Your answer must converge with what the test maker came up with. Contrast this type of thinking with divergent thinking, in which you have to come up with problems to solve in the first place because there is no single correct answer. How does this—more creative—form of thinking relate to the type of thinking measured by IQ tests?

Researchers have attempted to get at the answer to that question—reporting on average a small correlation between convergent thinking tests and divergent thinking tests. A recent study, however, has one of the most ingenious designs I've seen to date. The researchers were Saskia Jaarsveld, Thomas Lachmann, and Cees van Leeuwen, from Germany, Japan, and Belgium, respectively. They didn't just have people solve standard Raven's Progressive Matrices items but they also had 205 first to fourth graders invent their own darn items!

First they gave the children the standard pattern completion test to take. Then they flipped the script and asked the children to come up with entirely new items based on the test they just took. That's right, these young test takers suddenly become the test constructors! The researchers scored the responses to this test on a few different dimensions. They measured convergent thinking by having a team of raters assess the rules the kids used to describe the relations between the different figures. Those who came up with more complex and correct relations got more points. This is essentially the most important component of solving the traditional task. In the original Raven't test, you have to figure out the rules that describe the relationship between the different figures. In the example above, the rule is a simple succession of the shaded pieces. But more difficult items require figuring out multiple rules and sorting out the relevant from the irrelevant figures in your head. These problems get hard. They assessed divergent thinking by having a team of raters reward detailed and richly varied components.

Here's an example of an actual item created by a girl in first grade:

As you can see, she applied the idea of succession but wasn't correct in her application. She received a score based on the number of cells she correctly applied the rule. Additionally, to credit her divergent thinking, she also received points for specifying a number of different components.

The researchers then gave the kids a measure of creativity, in which the children were presented with an unfinished drawing and were asked to complete it. It was emphasized that there is no one way to complete the drawing. The total score on the creativity test was based on the number of associations the child made, and the originality and organization of the created ideas.

Their result? The convergent thinking aspect of the invented task was—unsurprisingly—related to the standard Raven's format. The divergent thinking aspect, however, was not related to the standard version. In fact, the correlation was close to 0! Not only that, but the convergent and divergent thinking aspects were unrelated to each other. These were simply separate dimensions of the task. Perhaps most interestingly, both aspects were significantly correlated with the creativity test.

What does this all mean? It means that IQ-type reasoning is only one slice of the creativity pie. The highest levels of creativity require both convergent thinking and divergent thinking. This idea has long been known in creativity research. According to the well known Geneplore model, creativity involves a cyclical process of generating ideas and then systematically working out which ideas are most fruitful and implementing them. The generation stage is thought to involve divergent thinking whereas the exploration stage is thought to involve convergent thinking.

What is so unique about this study is that it took a typical IQ tests and turned it into a divergent thinking test. The results from doing their study show quite clearly that IQ tests do not measure divergent thinking—a crucial component of creativity. If we want to assess a person's potential for creativity, innovation, and imagination, we have to do better than give them an IQ test. We can't just ask them to figure out the one correct answer. We have to give them the opportunity to tell us what the problem is in the first place.

© 2012 by Scott Barry Kaufman.

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Scott Barry Kaufman is Scientific Director of The Imagination Institute in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

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