The unicorns of creativity - Part 2

False myths, urban legends and other delusions about creativity and the mind
Francesco | 06.06.16

False myth: You are creative or not, there are no ways to improve creativity

Sure, there are ways to improve your creativity: all you need are brain-tuners for harmonizing the left and right hemispheres, and the brain pill that unlocks our unused 90% brain power, as we have seen in the previous part of this article. I’m joking, of course!

Testing Creativity

So, it's totally true that people differ from each other, and this is true also for creativity. Psychologists love to measure people’s skills and cognitive abilities, we call it psychometrics. The studies that measure individual peoples performances of creative tasks routinely show personal variation. For example, one of the most used tests for assessing creativity is the Guilford’s Alternative Uses Task (1967), in which people are asked to list as many possible uses for a common household item, such as a paperclip, in a fixed amount of time.

So, why not try this for yourself right now! Take a paper sheet and a pencil (or a digital sheet and a keyboard), and write down as many uses as possible for a brick in, say, 3 minutes.


Now, count how many uses you wrote. This score is called ‘fluency’. Then, look at the answers: how many of them are really original? I mean, “to build a wall” is a reasonable use for a brick, but it’s far from being original. For the ‘originality’ score, we are looking for uncommon and weird uses, such as “pull it to pieces and sell it as a puzzle toy” or “paint it black and use it as a coffin for a Barbie doll”. The official rule for scoring participants' answers on creativity is: ideas produced by 5% or less of the participants are considered uncommon, and ideas produced by 1% or less are very original.

Yes, I get that this measure may seem a bit rough, but it's a quick and good enough proxy for measuring what is called divergent thinking (Runco & Acar, 2012), that is our ability to generate many different solutions to solve a creative problem. (Measuring something fuzzy such as 'creativity' is a tough nut to crack, if you have any better ideas about it let us know!)

What can you do now with your fluency and originality scores? Well, pretty much nothing, since those scores have a meaning only when compared to other people’s scores. Researchers interested in studying creativity usually collect a lot of data and compare the performance of various groups (e.g., females vs. males, children vs. adults vs. older people, people who have done creativity training vs. people without such training, and so on).

As we know that individuals perform differently in tests like this, to some degree it’s true that some lucky people are more creative than the others. We also know what the usual traits of the most creative ones are: they are more open to new experiences and more self-accepting, but also less conscientious and with higher levels of hostility and impulsiveness (Feist, 1998). So, bit of a mixed bag...

Good News

But, much to our delight, here comes the good news: all of us just-average (or less-than-average) creative people can learn to be more creative! Or, to put it more correctly, we can all learn to use some tools and strategies that can improve the likelihood that we will come up with really original ideas and solutions. This was concluded in a meta-analysis of 70 studies (Scott, Leritz, & Mumford, 2004) where they found creativity training is effective, and it is especially good for enhancing divergent thinking and problem solving (see also Bruton, 2011; Rose & Lin, 1984; Torrance, 1972).

So as you can see, creativity can be developed, and indeed there are many techniques that promise miracles, but not all are equally effective (or effective at all!). For problem solving, there are techniques that are very effective in overcoming functional fixedness (that is, the difficulty of using an object in an unconventional way), such as analogical transfer (Solomon, 1994) and the generic parts technique (McCaffrey, 2012). For idea generation, random stimulation techniques will usually lead to good results (Finke, Ward, & Smith, 1992).

Moreover, there is a family of the group creativity techniques. I'm sure you know brainstorming, the most popular technique by far, but in its original form it's very flawed and not so effective, so people have developed (and are developing!) more evolved versions.

Learning creativity means not only learning how to use creativity strategies and tools, but mostly training to be skilled enough to automatically use the right ones exactly when you need them. Since the field of creativity techniques is very wide, we will review them in future posts, so stay tuned!

So, don’t worry if you don’t feel creative enough, there is still time to teach an old dog new tricks. As always, there no quick fixes or workarounds, but you have to do your homework. Chance are that, with patience and perseverance, you’ll be surprised by the results.

Read more false myths, urban legends and other delusions about creativity and the mind:

  1. The unicorns of creativity - Part 1
  2. The unicorns of creativity - Part 2
  3. The unicorns of creativity - Part 3


  • Bruton, D. (2011). Learning creativity and design for innovation. International Journal of Technology and Design Education, 21(3), 321-333.
  • Feist, G. J. (1998). A meta-analysis of personality in scientific and artistic creativity. Personality and social psychology review, 2(4), 290-309.
  • Finke, R. A., Ward, T. B., & Smith, S. M. (1992). Creative cognition: Theory, research, applications. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Guilford, J. P. (1967). The nature of human intelligence. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • McCaffrey, T. (2012). "Innovation relies on the obscure: A key to overcoming the classic functional fixedness problem". Psychological Science, 23(3), 215-218.
  • Rose, L. H., & Lin, H. T. (1984). A meta-analysis of long-term creativity training programs. The Journal of Creative Behavior.
  • Runco, M. A., & Acar, S. (2012). Divergent thinking as an indicator of creative potential. Creativity Research Journal, 24(1), 66-75.
  • Scott, G., Leritz, L. E., & Mumford, M. D. (2004). The effectiveness of creativity training: A quantitative review. Creativity Research Journal, 16(4), 361-388.
  • Solomon, I. (1994). Analogical transfer and “functional fixedness” in the science classroom. The Journal of Educational Research, 87(6), 371-377.
  • Torrance, E. P. (1972). Can We Teach Children to Think Creatively? Journal of Creative Behavior, 6, 114–143.
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