The Creativity Crisis

Newsweek's article on Creativity has been making the rounds recently. I had never heard of the Torrance creativity test, but it does seem like it would be interesting to take. The reason this article has been cited widely is this:

Like intelligence tests, Torrance’s test—a 90-minute series of discrete tasks, administered by a psychologist—has been taken by millions worldwide in 50 languages. Yet there is one crucial difference between IQ and CQ scores. With intelligence, there is a phenomenon called the Flynn effect—each generation, scores go up about 10 points. Enriched environments are making kids smarter. With creativity, a reverse trend has just been identified and is being reported for the first time here: American creativity scores are falling.

Kyung Hee Kim at the College of William & Mary discovered this in May, after analyzing almost 300,000 Torrance scores of children and adults. Kim found creativity scores had been steadily rising, just like IQ scores, until 1990. Since then, creativity scores have consistently inched downward. “It’s very clear, and the decrease is very significant,” Kim says. It is the scores of younger children in America—from kindergarten through sixth grade—for whom the decline is “most serious.”

I'm not particularly concerned about the downward trend in the scores, and the analogy to the Flynn effect is precisely why I'm not. The Flynn effect definitely does not mean that we are getting smarter over time. Flynn noticed that raw test scores on IQ tests had an upward trend over time, enough such that if you didn't renormalize the scores, the average person of 2000 would score 130 on an IQ test graded on the 1900 scale. This is clearly bullshit. When you look closer at the data, you find that the gains are all in analytical sections of the test, math, logic, and the like, and probably represent the channeling of talent into those areas by means of education, but the overall level of intellectual ability remains the same.

The Flynn effect is good evidence that intelligence is both plastic and determined. An upward or downward trend in raw scores isn't really indicative of much in general. With the Torrance test, I figure it probably measures the personality traits that are correlated with creativity. I don't find it surprising that these measures have begun to trend downward.

The reason this is so is related to the the competition to get into college. John D Cook provided a perfect example of this today, Erica Goldson's valedictory speech:

… I have successfully shown that I was the best slave. I did what I was told to the extreme. While others sat in class and doodled to later become great artists, I sat in class to take notes and become a great test-taker. While others would come to class without their homework done because they were reading about an interest of theirs, I never missed an assignment. While others were creating music and writing lyrics, I decided to do extra credit, even though I never needed it. … I have no clue about what I want to do with my life; I have no interests because I saw every subject of study as work, and I excelled at every subject just for the purpose of excelling …

That is a pretty good summary of the rat race that education for the college-bound has become. But why? Part of it is surely the vain attempt to extend college to everyone. The hypercompetitiveness of the elites is really just a side effect of something else, the efforts to make marginal students college material.

Students like Erica would probably go to college under most conceivable school systems, but we are trying to send students who are not very bright and/or don't work very hard. So the schools try to force them to be smarter and work harder.

John Taylor Gatto, a retired school teacher and activist critical of compulsory schooling, asserts, "We could encourage the best qualities of youthfulness - curiosity, adventure, resilience, the capacity for surprising insight simply by being more flexible about time, texts, and tests, by introducing kids into truly competent adults, and by giving each student what autonomy he or she needs in order to take a risk every now and then. But we don't do that." Between these cinderblock walls, we are all expected to be the same. We are trained to ace every standardized test, and those who deviate and see light through a different lens are worthless to the scheme of public education, and therefore viewed with contempt.

The primary personality trait that is associated with creativity is psychoticism. This sounds grim, but what it really means is a person who is has trouble getting with the program and doesn't give a damn what you think about their idea. This is precisely what you can't have in schools, because discipline is a problem among the student body.

The students who are marginal for college are more likely to be bored by academic course work, but we force them into more and more of it to prepare them for college. This is a bad combination. Since schools are not really allowed to treat people differently on the basis of their abilities, the solution applied to everyone is to sit down, shut up, and teach to the test. Thus we are systematically reducing the prevalence of the personality traits that the Torrance test measures. This is probably most effective on high-conscientiousness students like Erica, who are more attuned to what the school system is trying to do.

However, despite all that, I'm still not all that concerned. Things like personality traits that are partly genetically determined will tend to reassert themselves over time once you remove the external pressure. I am just not convinced that school can make you creative. School can enhance or diminish the existing abilities, but the American school system is not brutal enough to completely break the spirit of all its students. The students that Erica talks about who did their own thing were not rewarded by the school system, but they just kept on texting during class anyhow. What does happen is that average students are ill-served by their educations.

I don't know the best way to go about encouraging creativity. I wish I could give a suggestion, but I think it is pretty clear that the reason creativity is discouraged presently is that creativity is associated with a willingness to bend, break, or ignore the rules and flaunt social expectations. It seems possible that you could end up with complete chaos in a school if you tried to extend the kinds of freedom creativity requires to everyone. This kind of freedom would have to be limited to those likely to use it well, and I don't think we are willing to make the distinctions that would require.

However, it does seem that we could at least ease the pressure to send everyone to college, and thus at least reduce the incentive to conform.

Creativity in Science and Engineering, Part 3

Managing Creativity

Based on the personality traits identified with creativity in the last post, it seems that managing creativity is going to be difficult. However, there is some hope. I have less direct experience in the world of science, but in engineering, it is basically impossible for a lone genius to do all the work himself. Everything is team based these days. I work on a team, not a large one, but nonetheless it takes a lot of different skills to bring a medical product to market. 

This explains part of the reason why Charlton was complaining that science education selects for people with high conscientiousness and agreeableness. You just plain have to be able to work with people to get anything done today. However, this also has the effect of changing the distribution of personality traits you find amongst scientists and engineers. I don't know whether this works by just adding more agreeable scientists or preventing the less agreeable scientists from completing their PhDs. I wonder whether those who find that they don't like the direct of modern science end up in engineering of some sort [that is what happened to me].

A further important point is that the discussion of the traits associated with creativity are ceteris paribus. And on average. Turning to my favorite example for this series, my mad scientist team member is pretty rare in my organization. He has the classic profile of creativity sketched here: independent, obsessive about his work, willing to insist he is right in the face of criticism, and rather eccentric. He also has 22 patents, and hundreds of ideas that weren't worth enough money to patent, or are trade secret. Yet, in an organization known for innovative products, there are only a handful of people like him.

That kind of personality is hard to put to a given task. So, basically we don't. The task of running a project and bringing a project to market falls to slightly less creative individuals who are better at getting things done. Thinking in terms of distributions, you match the engineer or scientist to the task at hand. More diligent and less creative individuals [and I mean less relatively, not absolutely] typically end up in direct manufacturing support roles. You need people with higher C in that position, because getting all the details right and getting them done on time is critical there. But you don't necessarily need that person thinking about the 10-year plan. More creative, less diligent individuals can then be tasked with development work. Less paperwork, more rapid innovation. The most creative simply generate ideas, and don't do any paperwork except that required to file patents and whatnot.  

But even this is still speaking in terms of ceteris paribus. Even on a given team, you find a spread of traits, such that some team members will be more or less conscientious or creative. The trick is making sure the team is compatible, which would be a whole 'nother post.

Standler's essay on creativity identifies true creativity as a solitary activity, and there is definitely some truth to that. But, that essay is also written from the point of view of identifying only epochal, ground breaking work as truly creative. It certainly is, but tending to think in terms of distributions, the lesser work that I see going on at my job still qualifies as creative, it is just less earth-shattering. Each team member has their own bits of creativity to add to the project, which could in some ways be seen as the art of combining little bursts of individual creativity into a useful whole. I don't agree with Standler that this is a different kind of research, but I rather see it as a lesser variety of the same thing.

Other good points Standler makes about managing creativity is that the creative work is inherently wasteful and difficult to predict. You end up with a lot of ideas that don't make the cut. This is totally normal, the trick is to be good enough at generating ideas that some of them work. If we think of the distribution of engineers, the most creative ones generate the most ideas, but have the most bad ones too. The least creative engineers have fewer creative ideas, but have to make them work every time, because failure means products that are not made right. Those most creative engineers are usually not on a schedule, and as you move through the distribution, the expectations of meeting a schedule increase. This is all for the best, given the people involved.

Really, one of the best things to help creativity occur is to match the person to the task, and then get out of the way. Speaking of "managing" creativity seems to imply that you can shepherd the process, but in my experience that does not seem to be the case. The best results seem to come from finding the right people and turning them loose.

See Part 1 and Part 2

Creativity in Science and Engineering, Part 2

Personality traits associated with creativity

See Part 1

Which personality traits are associated with creativity can help us know which individuals will be best suited to a role in R&D. So first, I think it is worthwhile to specify what I mean by creativity. Borrowing from an essay on creativity from Ronald Standler: A creative person does things that have never been done before. Standler goes on to make several good distinctions. Creativity is not identical to intelligence, which is furthermore not identical to academic accomplishment. 

Another good distinction is made by Bruce Charlton. Creativity is not just the application of abstract intelligence to a complex problem. This is the kind of thing I can imagine a 1st grade teacher telling her students: you just need to be more creative! However, as Charlton notes, this is more of a manifestation of neoteny, novelty-seeking, than any kind of actual creativity. So, Standler's definition needs some modification. We might operationally narrow the definition to be doing things that have not been done before in a useful way that is non-obvious. If it was obvious, anyone of sufficiently high intelligence could figure it out, and it is clear that not all intelligent people are creative. Also, it seems important to look for useful things to weed out pure novelty seeking.

Standler and Charlton both go on to look at the personality traits that they have identified with creative people. Standler lists:

  • Diligence
  • Stubbornness
  • Male
  • Eccentric

His list is based mostly on personal experience and biographies of famous scientists and inventors. Please be aware that everything here is based on "for the most part" kind of associations and correlations, so please don't be offended if you don't fit the criteria.

Charlton identifies a specific personality trait Psychoticism, as being correlated with creativity.

Perhaps surprisingly, creativity has often been found to be predicted by moderately high levels of Eysenck’s personality trait of ‘Psychoticism’ [31]. The trait of Psychoticism has been well-validated [6] and [32]; high psychoticism combines low-Agreeableness (e.g., higher selfishness, independence from group norms), low Conscientiousness (for example impulsivity, sensation-seeking) with a style of cognition that involves fluent, associative and rapid production of many ideas. So, although a trait of low Psychoticism implies a rational and pro-social personality (which are usually highly desirable traits); moderately high Psychoticism is not merely antisocial but has positive aspects as well – since it has flavours of independence of spirit and a more spontaneous and fantasy-like mode of thinking. This style of cognition seems to be a basis for creativity.

An interesting contrast here is that Standler identifies diligence, which is probably similar to conscientiousness, as an important factor, whereas Charlton downplays that factor. Clearly, there is something to be said for the idea that if you never finish anything, your creativity doesn't really amount to much. However, I think that perhaps the solution here is that Charlton is talking about a trait or tendency, rather than a result like Standler is. By way of analogy, my mad scientist co-worker has a messy desk, and needs meeting reminders, but damn does he work hard. I think the missing factor may be obsessiveness. Charles Murray noted in Human Accomplishment that the most famous figures in science and art have a tendency to be obsessed with their work, to the exclusion of even their friends and families, if they had families. Standler mentioned this in passing, but I think it probably helps make up for the lack of conscientiousness. A creative person is often not who you want organizing the lab space, because they just aren't that interested in it. They are going to get distracted by some new idea. Someone with a high C, on the other hand, would be very good at this.

One of the critical factors of true creativity is a certain independence of mind. Not too much, because creative individuals do in fact have to be able to work with other people, but just enough to be able to insist that "yes, my idea does work". Also important is a certain degree of obsessiveness, because that is a critical factor in ensuring something actually gets accomplished, because creative people are certain to be bored by routine work. A little bit of stubbornness helps, because you need to persist in the face of obstacles both managerial and scientific. The last bit that Charlton identifies as a more spontaneous and fantasy-like mode of thinking is hard to pin down, but it seems basically correct.

Now that the traits have been identified, the question becomes how do you manage this creativity? Given the traits identified, this may seem difficult, but the task must be done. Creativity in science and engineering is often directed to specific ends, and in engineering, you must ultimately make money. So what do you do with all these crazy people?

Creativity in Science and Engineering, Part 1

Recently, my project manager attended a seminar on Systematic Innovation. It was interesting he said, but he wasn't too sure of the ultimate value of it. It mostly seemed like a really fancy kind of brainstorming, to try and help you address a greater proportion of the probabilities. But the really crucial question for us was: would this help the most creative guy we work with be more innovative? We basically figured no, because it would just drive him crazy. Our resident mad scientist is pretty hard to put to task on anything, but he comes up with the craziest ideas that often actually work. Telling him that he needed to apply some system would just annoy him, and waste our time.

This got me thinking of the subject of creativity in science and engineering, since I have fallen into a corporate R&D role. My job is essentially to come up with innovative new products, and bring them to market. I don't know much about other kinds of creativity, so I will hew pretty closely to the kinds of things I am familiar with.

This is something that bears thinking about, because innovative science and engineering have a great deal to do with our modern standard of life, so it seems that we would like to encourage creativity as a matter of the common good. With this goal in mind, I'd like to look at the personality traits associated with creativity, and the matter of the best way to manage creativity in a business environment. Over the next few days, I will post my thoughts on those subjects.