A Quick Test of Creative Potential

Who is the most creative person you can think of?

This is one of my favorite questions to ask people who are interested in creativity because the answers I get are usually a) very consistent, and b) reflective of how people think about creativity in general. By far, the most common responses to that question are celebrities in technology or popular culture: Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Beyonce, John Lennon.

For the Skimmers

  • Almost everyone has creative potential, but not to the same extent

  • There are multiple ways creative differences are measured

  • The Remote Associates Test is one quick and easy approximation

Keep reading for a test and a creativity exercise

We infer creative talent about people who make creative things. And at least in the US, that usually means products we buy or consume like electronics and media. In the absence of better assessments, judging creative products is our best way of determining how creative a person is.

The good news is almost everyone has creative potential, and most of us demonstrate creative thinking every single day. Still, some people are better at it than others, or as psychologists describe it, there are individual differences in creative potential. There are lots of flavors of creativity, though. The challenge in assessment is related to how wildly different one person's creativity looks from the next.

For example, an accountant solving a problem creatively is using different abilities than an engineer solving a design challenge. It's for this reason that most creativity research, and many assessments of creative potential, look at the foundational cognitive processes of "domain general" creativity.

As I wrote in a previous post, every creative idea you've ever had was the rooted in some experience or knowledge you already had. Commonly, that means combining two ideas that were previously unrelated, but when combined make a new and useful idea. For example, any start-up that describes themselves as the Uber of [whatever] is combining the idea of app-based delivery and some as-yet unexploited service.

If people differ on this ability, it's something we can measure.

Connecting disparate ideas in creative new ways is described through the Remote Associates theory of creativity. According to associative theory, individuals differ in their ability to find connections between unrelated categories of knowledge. People who are able to find connections (associates) between more distant, or remote, ideas are have the potential to produce more creative ideas than individuals who struggle to find a link between different ideas. Importantly, if people differ on this ability, it's something we can measure. The Remote Associates Test (RAT) was first used to demonstrate the associative theory of creativity, and has been used subsequently as a proxy for creative potential.

In the RAT, individuals are presented with three words and they are prompted to identify a fourth word that connects them. For example, what connects:

Barrel | Belly | Root

Beer! As in a beer barrel, a beer belly, and root beer. That's a pretty easy one. The domains of knowledge those three ideas come from aren't too different. They're all somewhat related to drinking or consuming stuff. A more difficult example is:

Stick | Maker | Point

Match, as in a matchstick, a matchmaker (as in dating), and match point (as in tennis). This one is harder because there is very little in common between a match for lighting fires and a match point in tennis.

You can try solving a bunch more examples here.

The RAT is not a comprehensive measure of creative potential or ability (so don't feel badly if you aren't doing as well on the test as you'd like). For one, it's very verbal, meaning people who know a lot of words and are good at reasoning with words will find the test questions easier to solve than those who aren't, regardless of their creative talent. It's also highly related to general intelligence, which, while important to creativity, is its own thing. And lastly, because the RAT is meant to be domain-general, it's very broad and not good at measuring specific creative talents like musical or spatial/visual creativity.

The test is good at demonstrating the power of associative thinking as a creative process, however. Here's an exercise for illustration:

Step 1: Think an idea or feature of a problem you've been working on lately

Step 2: Write down 3 words loosely associated with that idea

Step 3: Choose the third word from Step 2 and generate another list of 3 ideas associated with that word

You should have seven ideas in total, and the seventh word is probably pretty far removed from the first word. Practicing this exercise is a good way to activate knowledge or ideas you may have neglected for a while, which is a good way to break out of creative fixation and find moments of creative insight.

The RAT isn't the best measure of creative potential, but it's fast and easily scored because it has "correct" answers. For that reason it's still used in a lot of research on creative thinking. More importantly, it demonstrates one of the mechanisms that leads to creative performance, and how people differ in their ability to use that mechanism. In future posts we'll cover more advanced approaches to identifying creative potential.

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