The Creativity Crisis In America!



Creativity has decreased in the Unites States since 1990. We must cultivate a creative climate to reverse the trend. (Last updated on October 16, 2016)

My research interest has focused primarily on Creativity, what it is, and how it is related to society, education, and other aspects of life including intelligence. In 2005, I published a meta-analysis study synthesizing empirical studies that were published between 1965 and 2005 regarding the relationship between creativity and intelligence. The results showed that there is a negligible relationship between the two, suggesting that even without high IQ one can be creative as long as she or he has the ability to master knowledge and skills in her or his subject of Curiosity, Preference, or Interest (CPI).

I further examined the changes of intelligence and creativity over time. The Flynn effect unveiled the increase of IQ scores worldwide, therefore, if intelligence and creativity were the same or similar concepts, then creativity would have also increased. However, I found that creativity in America has decreased since 1990, using the scores from the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking (TTCT)-Figural.
The results of my study were published in the Creativity Research Journal in 2011. It was the subject of a Newsweek cover story.

The participants for this creativity crisis study included a total of 272,599 TTCT scores from kindergartners though adults including: 3,150 from 1966; 19,111 from 1974; 37,814 from 1984; 88,355 from 1990; 54,151 from 1998; and 70,018 from 2008. These participants represent all regions of the United States and some regions of Canada over time.  TTCT is a creativity test, and it has been translated to almost 40 different languages.  It is also the most reliable and valid creativity test among those currently available and the most widely used.  It was first developed in the 1950s by E. Paul Torrance, the Father of Creativity, and has since been updated six times. The results of the test are twofold:  it measures the creativity of individuals and how they are creative by identifying strengths and weaknesses in their creative attitudes and creative thinking skills.

The three steps for innovation is explained by CATs, as the figure shows: cultivate the 4S Climates; nurture the 4S Attitudes, and apply ION (outbox and newbox) Thinking skills. TTCT measures some of the 4S attitudes and ION thinking skills. The results of the creativity crisis study indicate that newbox thinking decreased the most; outbox thinking decreased next; and creative attitudes decreased next. The decline is most profound in those ranging from kindergarten through sixth grade.

1. Decrease in 4S Attitudes

Creative attitudes are the ways individuals react to the creative climates.  The 4S attitudes (soil, sun, storm, and space) mirror the 4S climates. The soil climate cultivates soil attitudes such as open-mindedness, biculturalism, complexity-seeking, and resourcefulness. The sun climate cultivates sun attitudes such as optimism, big-picture-thinking, curiosity, spontaneity, and playfulness. The storm climate cultivates storm attitudes such as independence, self-discipline, diligence, self-efficacy, resilience, risk-taking, persistence, and uncertainty-accepting. The space climate cultivates space attitudes such as emotional expressiveness, compassion, self-reflection, autonomy, daydreaming, nonconformity, gender-bias-free, and defiance. Among the 4S attitudes, TTCT measures open-mindedness, emotional expressiveness, playfulness, daydreaming, and nonconformity.

1) Open-mindedness

The open-minded attitude involves considering others’ views that are different from one’s own. It’s developed by early diverse experiences including exposure to other cultures. Innovators pursue flexible ways of life, are daring and open to broad experiences and interests including fantasy and imagination. They constantly learn and find new understanding by questioning and changing ingrained beliefs, which enables developing expertise and critical thinking skills. The open-minded attitude is measured by the Resistance to premature closure subscale, which has decreased since 1998.

2) Emotional Expressiveness

The emotional attitude includes recognizing, understanding, and expressing individuals’ own feelings. It helps individuals communicate their own state of mind and empathy for others. Innovators experience deep emotions, are sensitive to the environment, and are emotionally expressive. Emotions affect creativity often more than cognitive or other rational factors and are found in all creative endeavors including science and arts. The emotional attitude is measured by the Emotional expressiveness subscale of the Creative strengths, which has decreased since 1998.

3) Playfulness

The playful attitude includes approaching situations in exploratory ways and seeing the lighter side of challenges; it helps sustain individuals’ energy over time. Innovators are playful and humorous and focused on their passion and goal, while using casual and flexible thinking, including humor. Innovators’ humor and playfulness structure their work as fun and/or play in a way that frees their outbox thinking—which is limited by work-play dichotomy—and find ideas/solutions that might not have been thought of using pure logic or common sense. Their provocative approaches that deliberately mock analytical top-down approaches facilitate newbox thinking and reveal surprising connections and/or opportunities. The playful attitude is measured by the Humor subscale of the Creative strengths, which has decreased since 1998. 

4) Daydreaming

The daydreaming attitude includes sustaining unrealistic but goal-oriented thoughts while awake. It helps individuals disregard existing norms in their extemporaneous thoughts but capture useable aspects of thoughts, which is beneficial for outbox and newbox thinking. Innovators seek unique ideas and take advantage of daydreams to achieve innovation.  The daydreaming attitude is measured by the Fantasy subscale of the Creative strengths, which has decreased since 1998.

5) Nonconformity

The nonconforming attitude includes choosing to differ from mainstream patterns of thought and behavior. It develops by feeling comfortable being an outsider. It helps individuals reach their uniqueness beyond existing norms. Innovators develop new concepts, approaches, and products using outbox thinking by breaking conventional/traditional ways of thinking; they reject the limits imposed by others and set their own rules; and they find their strengths and pursue their own goal instead of others’. The nonconforming attitude is measured by the Extending/Breaking boundaries subscale of the Creative strengths, which has decreased since 1998.

2. Decrease in ION Thinking Skills

The 4S attitudes enable innovators' ION thinking skills during the creative process to achieve innovation. TTCT measures fluid, flexible, and original outbox thinking skills.

1) Fluid Thinking

Fluid thinking is a skill used to spontaneously generate many ideas. It is measured by the Fluency subscale, which has decreased since 1990. More idea generation leads to more unique ideas and better ideas, and thus fluid thinking is the foundation of both flexible and original thinking. If individuals cannot generate many ideas, then they generate less substantial ideas.

2) Flexible Thinking

Flexible thinking is a skill to generate different kinds of ideas from different angles, which is an even better predictor of innovation than fluid thinking is. It’s a skill to consider multiple options and perceive a common object or situation in a different way. It is measured by the Unusual visualization subscale, which has decreased since 1998.

3) Original Thinking

Original thinking is a skill used to generate new or unusual ideas.  It is an even better predictor of innovation than flexible thinking, and uses both fluid and flexible thinking.  It is measured by the Originality subscale, which has decreased since 1990. Originality is one of the most critical elements of creative thinking. The decrease might result from a climate that is less tolerant of different creative expressions and behaviors through social pressures toward conformity and status quo.

3. Decrease in Newbox Thinking.

TTCT measures newbox thinking skills of synthesis, transformation, and promotion.

1) Synthesis

Synthesis is recombining things and information into a new coherent whole without losing the essence of each part. Innovation often starts by synthesizing elements of existing ideas because innovation is built on existing knowledge/skills. The 1) big-picture-thinking, 2) boundary-crossing, 3) pattern-finding, and 4) dot-connecting skills are used for synthesis. Each synthesis skill is an opportunity to connect different aspects of unrelated ideas.

i) Big-Picture Thinking: The big-picture-thinking skill is presenting information in a larger context or system rather than the details and is thinking beyond what is seen. It is measured by the Abstractness of titles subscale, which has decreased since 1998.

ii) Boundary-Crossing: The boundary-crossing skill is going beyond a subject and connecting the most dramatically different or irrelevant subjects or fields by developing diverse expertise and passions (like art and science), like earning degrees from very different fields or experiencing significant career changes. It is measured by the Extending/Breaking boundaries subscale of the 13 checklists of Creative strengths, which has deceased since 1998.

iii) Pattern-Finding: The pattern-finding skill is symbolizing complex ideas, images, or data without losing the essence or distorting facts. It finds patterns by disregarding irrelevant or superficial information and bringing essential elements or attributes forward.  It is measured by both of the Synthesis of lines/circles and Synthesis of incomplete figures subscales of the Creative strengths, which have decreased since 1998.

iv) Dot-Connecting: The dot-connecting skill is seeing things as a connected whole instead of many unrelated pieces. It is recognizing an entire tree instead of separate branches or a whole chain instead of separate links. The dot-connecting skill is facilitated, first, by metaphorical-thinking skill that helps form analogies and bridge conceptual gaps to see things from new perspectives; and metaphors are easy to understand and create vivid images in the audience’s mind; second, by nonverbal thinking or communication skills such as visualizing or thinking in pictures; third, by thinking with the five senses, such as using and/or combining sight, sound, touch, smell, and/or taste to illustrate ideas or make new connections between irrelevant ideas; and fourth, by thinking with the body such as thinking and communicating ideas in physical, lively, and emotionally vivid ways that is also effective for the promotion skill. The dot-connecting skill is measured by both of the Colorfulness of imagery and Movement/action subscales of the Creative strengths, which has decreased since 1998. This indicates that individuals are less able to think metaphorically; think and communicate nonverbally; use the five senses; and think with the body.

2) Transformation

Synthesized ideas must be transformed into a useful creation by elaborating, refining, and simplifying them.  When transforming ideas into their maximum usefulness, the perfect balance between elaboration and simplicity is critical. The i) persistent-elaboration, ii) imaginative-refinement, and iii) pursuit-of-simplicity skills are used for transformation, which has decreased more than any other ION thinking skills.

i) Persistent Elaboration: The persistent-elaboration skill is necessary to work out the details, explain, expand, enrich, and to complete the lengthy transformation stage. The persistent-elaboration skill is measured by the Elaboration subscale, which as decreased the earliest, starting in 1984, indicating that individuals are less able to persistently elaborate ideas.

ii) Imaginative Refinement: After elaborating the synthesized ideas with details, the imaginative-refinement skill is necessary to improve or magnify uniqueness of the idea or the creation by experimenting with unexpected variations. Based on others’ perspectives or criticism, further refinement is made to make make a good creation better. The imaginative-refinement skill is measured by the Richness of imagery subscale of the Creative strengths, which has decreased since 1998.

iii) Pursuit of Simplicity: The pursuit-of-simplicity skill is to transform complexity into simplicity by a thorough understanding of a complex and removing distracting or unessential elements to make the essence useful to others.  The pursuit-of-simplicity skill is measured by the Abstractness of titles subscale, which has decreased since 1998.

3) Promotion

The creation must be promoted in the right place at the right time. The right place is one that is receptive to their creation—often big multicultural cities, which value nonconformity and accept outsiders from diverse nationalities, ethnicities, religions, and sexual orientations. Being in these cities increases the likelihood of successful promotion. Promotion skills have decreased, which include i) articulation, ii) naming, and iii) storytelling, in addition to the use of metaphor and nonverbal communication, such as visualizing and using the five senses and body movement.

i) Articulating: Articulating features and benefits of a creation is necessary for promotion so that the audience can understand, accept, and desire the creation. The articulation skill is measured by the Storytelling articulateness subscale, which has decreased since 1998.

ii) Naming: Developing a creation’s name or title that grabs others’ attention is a necessary skill for promotion so that the audience can remember and convey it to others. The naming skill is measured by the Expressiveness of titles subscale, which has decreased since 1998.

iii) Storytelling: Developing a skill to craft and share compelling and interesting stories is necessary for promotion. The audience remembers storytelling better and longer than factual lists. Storytelling communicates simpler and more persuasive by appealing to emotions and creating mental images for the audience, which show, instead of explaining. The storytelling skill is measured by the Storytelling articulateness subscale, which has decreased since 1998.

Why Were Americans Creative Before?

Examining the history of the United States suggests a slow society-wide evolution from a revolutionary to a circumspect mindset.  Early immigrants gambled their lives in hopes of a better future.  They left behind everything they knew including the stability of friends and family.  America attracted people from all over the world, and despite their different beliefs, values, and languages, they shared the creative attitudes of innovators such as biculturalism, optimism, and risk-taking.  These commonalities furthered their creativity by their curiosity, open-mindedness, flexibility, and non-conformity in their thinking. The young country was framed according to the creative attitudes found in innovators.

Why Has Americans' Creativity Decreased?

In the mid 1980s, America shifted into an age of insecurity, which has contributed to American’s decrease in creativity. American insecurity includes domestic insecurity, a desire or financial security and maintaining the status quo, instead of continuing to evolve. It also includes international insecurity, a fear of global economic competition.

Also, many today’s American parents are often overprotective of their children and want them to pursue secure careers, rather than follow their creative potential and dreams. Thus, education is seen as a stepping-stone to a safe or lucrative career, and most of today’s young Americans (68%) see “getting rich” as the single most important goal in life.

The federal government has dramatically decreased R&D (research and development) funding while other countries have significantly increased their funding. The number of basic research articles published by American researchers in peer- reviewed journals has decreased. American inventors’ patents decreased while foreign inventors’ increased.

How Can We Recapture American Innovation?

Increased globalization has led to a more interconnected and complex society, which has compounded the need for creative thinkers. Creativity can be taught and nurtured, yet exhibiting creative attitudes and applying creative thinking skills require creative climates. Cultivating the 4S climates is the first step of CATs to achieve innovation.

(Anything written in this article is based on research findings, not a personal opinion, and the original sources are found in the book.)

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The 2012 Torrance Lecture: The Creativity Crisis - Dr. KH Kim


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