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"The Creativity Crisis"
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July 12, 2010, 02:08 PM
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The beginning of an article by Po Bronson in Newsweek:
Back in 1958, Ted Schwarzrock was an 8-year-old third grader when he became one of the “Torrance kids,” a group of nearly 400 Minneapolis children who completed a series of creativity tasks newly designed by professor E. Paul Torrance. Schwarzrock still vividly remembers the moment when a psychologist handed him a fire truck and asked, “How could you improve this toy to make it better and more fun to play with?” He recalls the psychologist being excited by his answers. In fact, the psychologist’s session notes indicate Schwarzrock rattled off 25 improvements, such as adding a removable ladder and springs to the wheels. That wasn’t the only time he impressed the scholars, who judged Schwarzrock to have “unusual visual perspective” and “an ability to synthesize diverse elements into meaningful products.”

The accepted definition of creativity is production of something original and useful, and that’s what’s reflected in the tests. There is never one right answer. To be creative requires divergent thinking (generating many unique ideas) and then convergent thinking (combining those ideas into the best result).

In the 50 years since Schwarzrock and the others took their tests, scholars—first led by Torrance, now his colleague, Garnet Millar—have been tracking the children, recording every patent earned, every business founded, every research paper published, and every grant awarded. They tallied the books, dances, radio shows, art exhibitions, software programs, advertising campaigns, hardware innovations, music compositions, public policies (written or implemented), leadership positions, invited lectures, and buildings designed.

Nobody would argue that Torrance’s tasks, which have become the gold standard in creativity assessment, measure creativity perfectly. What’s shocking is how incredibly well Torrance’s creativity index predicted those kids’ creative accomplishments as adults. Those who came up with more good ideas on Torrance’s tasks grew up to be entrepreneurs, inventors, college presidents, authors, doctors, diplomats, and software developers. Jonathan Plucker of Indiana University recently reanalyzed Torrance’s data. The correlation to lifetime creative accomplishment was more than three times stronger for childhood creativity than childhood IQ.

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.”

Here`s Wikipedia`s description of the Torrance tests of creativity.

I`m not going to speculate much on this reported finding of a downturn after 1990. Besides the usual demographic changes, I`m wondering if play moved from physical to virtual around then and whether the tests could keep up. Also, cheap plastic toys from China started arriving around 1990, and perhaps kids spent less time dreaming of how they could improve their small number of toys and more time assuming that if they needed a better toy, they would just nag their parents to go to the store and buy it.

A modern child doesn`t want some dumb fire truck that could be improved in 25 different ways. He wants a fully focus-grouped Transformers Inferno fire truck / alien robot that is part of a cartoon show and blockbuster movie series and that comes with dozens of other toys in the series to buy. If professional toy designers, researchers, marketers, McDonald`s Happy Meal executives, screenwriters, advertising agents, and web people haven`t taken dozens of meetings over the fire truck and exchanged countless Notes on how to make the entire branding concept more awesome, he doesn`t want it.

Anyway, I do want to explain why IQ tests are more useful than creativity tests. We use IQ-like tests for all sorts of predictive purposes, such as law school admissions. The LSAT is pretty good at predicting whether you are smart enough to not flunk out of law school and to pass the bar exam. So, the LSAT can help you avoid disastrous life choices — spending years studying a subject that`s not really that much fun and is very expensive and end up still not being smart enough to be a lawyer.

The AFQT/ASVAB helps the Air Force figure out if it`s worth sending you to avionics school or truck driving school. Neither one is all that much fun

In contrast, there isn`t much need for tests to see how good you`ll be at playing the guitar or playing tennis or whatever. Why not? It would be useful to have a genetic test that would tell the parents of young athletes how tall they`ll end up being. But for most fun things, the best test of how good a guitar player or basketball player you`ll be is to pick up a guitar or basketball, get some coaching, and practice, practice, practice. You`ll figure out soon enough if you in the top half or the bottom half of the population distribution. And if you don`t like playing tennis, it really doesn`t matter if you have a high TQ score on some hypothetical test because people who do will be better at it, and why play a game you don`t like? As for figuring out if you are in the 99.9999th percentile or 99.99999th percentile of tennis players, well that`s what they hold Wimbledon for. Not test you take as a little kid is going to predict that.

Creativity is similar. The way to show you are creative is to be creative. The last thing we need are people claiming sinecures on the grounds that they have the proper creativity credential.

The whole subject of creativity is so vast and murky that I don`t have all that much to say about it from a quantitative point of view. For example, Paul Johnson, who is vastly more cultured than I am, says the four most creative writers in the English language are Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens, and Kipling. I can kind of see where he`s coming from with that, and it sounds at least as reasonable as anybody else`s Top Four. Yet, still, would Dr. Torrance agree? On what grounds? Who knows?

I do want to talk about a great example of one particular type of creativity: inventing something new and important out of everyday stuff. A lot of new technology is invented because the state of the art has progressed to the point when somebody is going to do it pretty soon. Moore`s Law is predicated on the assumption that some CPU engineer at Intel or Advanced Micro Devices is going to come up with breakthroughs pretty much on schedule. But it takes a huge infrastructure to give these guys what it takes to make the breakthroughs possible.

On the other hand, some inventions are of the "How stupid of me not to have thought of that?" variety. This is the kind of creativity that might seem more amenable to quantitative study.

Think of those yellow barrels full of increasing amounts of sand that Highway Departments place in front of bridge abutments and other deadly immovable roadside hazards that progressively slow crashing cars down. How many lives have they saved by now? A million?

Anybody could have invented garbage cans partially filled with sand anytime in the half century before 1955.

For forty years I`ve wondered who invented this system. I`d always assumed the inventor would be some obscure individual who had a random flash of insight. I finally looked it up, and it turns out not to have been an idea that happened to some little known inventor out of the blue, but as a result of the most spectacular catastrophe in the annals of automotive safety.

American race car driver Jon Fitch was the man:

In World War Two, after attending Lehigh University, Captain Fitch flew a P-51 Mustang and was credited with shooting down an advanced Messerschmitt Me 262 jet. Two months before the end of the war, he himself was shot down and spent the remainder of the war as a prisoner of the Third Reich.

After his return to the US, Fitch opened an MG car dealership and began a racing career that spanned more than 40 years. In 1953, Fitch competed in many European races and was named "Sports Car Driver of the Year" by Speed Age magazine. In 1954 Fitch began driving for the all-powerful Mercedes-Benz team along with some of the greatest drivers of the era including Juan Manuel Fangio, Karl Kling, and Stirling Moss, composing what some have called the most formidable racing team ever.

But not before his personal involvement as a it-coulda-been-me bystander in the most horrific accident in racing history:
In 1955, Fitch competed in the 24 Heures du Mans where he was paired with Pierre Levegh in a Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR. He was in the pits when, with Levegh at the wheel, the 300 SLR was involved in a tragic crash that killed Levegh and more than 80 spectators. The incident sparked his lifelong interest in safety innovations for racing and highways.
As the car somersaulted into the stands, the hood spun off and decapitated spectators among much other carnage. Here`s a two minute newsreel showing the magnesium-bodied SLR 300, the racing version of the legendary gull-wing doors sports car, burning like a torch in the grandstand.

In response, Fitch began inventing ways to make roads safer, founding Impact Attenuation Inc. During WWII, he`d used trash cans full of sand to protect his tent from strafing by German planes, so he adapted that idea to roads.

Jon Fitch, like an awful lot of people whose lives have been saved by Fitch Barriers, is still alive.