The origin of originality

026f7386d86f1391f6f184682e8db927Start any discussions on the origin of creativity and you will quickly find the group divided. On one side people claim it is an innate trait. You are either born with or without it. Keep on pressing this faction and most will admit it is not exactly a black or white proposition, rather people are apparently born with varying amounts of creativity. They cite anecdotal examples of young children demonstrating precocious creative ability that grow up to be a great artists, composers, or inventors–such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

On the other hand there are people who see creativity as a skill that can be taught. Now while many of these people are attempting to advance their own curriculum for developing it, not all are. They commonly view the ability to come up with original, useful ideas as our best chance at solving humankind’s problems. They refer to examples of children who grow up in artistic and creative environment that go on to produce great original works–for example Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

In order to test either proposition one must first define creativity and develop a way to measure it. This investigation is already sunk because a single definition of creativity is impossible to obtain. What is original and unique in one culture, may be commonplace in another.  What solves a problems or accomplishes a goal in one society, may be nonsensical to another.  It is not the just the acts or products, but how these compare to others in the same society that is the hallmark of creativity. So psychologists have come up with their own definitions, their own research and their own tests. Actually the definitions may only vaguely relate to the research, and the tests are typically borrowed or build on other’s work.

J.P. Guilford, head of psychological research for U.S. Army,  was one of first to build an elaborate battery of assessments for creativity. He formulated a model called Structure of Intellect, a three dimensional model showing the relationship of mental processes,  products, and content in intellectual ability. His creativity assessments were largely a measurement of divergent thinking–generating a variety of ideas or possible solutions for a task.  [1]

The Torrance Test of Creative Thinking (TTCT) developed by E. Paul Torrance, were based on J.P. Guilford’s work on tests of divergent thinking. They were originally scored on four scales:

  • Flexibility – the number of different categories of ideas
  • Fluency – the total number of meaningful different ideas that were generated
  • Originality – how different the ideas were from those of peers
  • Elaboration – how well the details of these ideas were developed

The major benefits of this test: it can be taken by children or adults and provides a comparative score for originality. Along with this test Torrance performed long term studies to find out what happened to the creatively gifted students who first took it in 1958. Those students who continued with high levels of creative achievement developed an image of their future career earlier than their peers did. Therefore, they were working towards a specific goal longer. They also had mentors to assist them. [3]

Of course this still does not answer the question of whether the creativity is innate or not, but knowing where you are going and having someone advice you on how to get there is a definite bonus.

[1] Irving A. Taylor, A Retrospective View of Creativity Investigation, in edited by Perspectives in Creativity, eds, Irving A. Taylor, Jacob W. Getzels (1975)Transaction Publishers
[2] Torrance, E. (1999). Torrance test of creative thinking:  Norms and technical manual.  Beaconville, IL: Scholastic Testing Services.
[3] Torrance, E. Paul (1980) Growing Up Creatively Gifted: A 22-Year Longitudinal Study. Creative Child and Adult Quarterly, v5 n3 p148-58,170 Fall 1980
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