Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Decline of Creativity?

Last month, I read an article in Newsweek that put into words a fear I have been having about creativity in America.  The article, "The Creativity Crisis" by Po Bronson and Ashely Merryman [2], appeared in the July 19, 2010 issue of Newsweek and can still be found online.

A little background:  The article refers to scores on a creativity test originally developed by Ellis Paul Torrance in the late 1950s and formalized in 1966 as the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking [1].  The test is similar to an intelligence test in that a psychologist administers it and it requires the performance of discrete tasks over a fixed duration.  Instead of deriving an Intelligence Quotient (IQ), it derives a Creativity Quotient (CQ).  The article briefly explains the difference between the two tests noting that while the IQ test is subject to the Flynn effect [3]—"each generation, scores go up about ten points," which requires the test to be re-normalized periodically to maintain an average score of 100—while the CQ test, apparently, is not.  The implication is that scores on an IQ test may be inflated between re-normalizations.  It is unclear to me whether CQ tests can suffer from a similar phenomenon and whether any comparison to past results is truly valid:  the article assumes they are.  Nevertheless, up until 1990, CQ scores were steadily rising.  Since 1990, they have been consistently falling with the decrease in younger children between kindergarten and sixth grade being regarded as the most significant.

While it is unclear whether the premise of the problem presented within the article is completely factual—popular magazines tend to skew information to their audience, do not provide peer reviewed references, and are not themselves peer reviewed—I believe the issue itself is real.  The vast information we now have available to us via the Internet and the latest trend toward social networking and online communities would seem to be positive development.  Indeed, the recession-induced workplace of 2010 with its "always on, always available" philosophy would also seem to be a boon to businesses, albeit somewhat temporary.  The negative, in my opinion, is that these advancements in information availability, trends toward hyper-connectivity, and workplace expectations are systematically eliminating the time available to assimilate and process information:  to allow people to think through what they have seen and learned and come up with new ways of solving problems or doing things better.

The need for assimilation time does not mean I think that we should never have deadlines or that we should not attempt to complete our various projects (personal or professional) in a timely manner.  Indeed, I have found that in some cases these pressures can help me find new ways of doing things (out of necessity).  Yet, these solutions are often not of the same quality as when I have a chance to think them through.  While they tend to get the job done in the short-term they may be one-time solutions that cannot be easily repeated or transformed into longer-term success.  For me, those ideas that have lasted are those that I had the time to think through, try with some willing participants, and modify upon some reflection and with the input of those same participants.  The process is not linear and certainly not easily scheduled against an arbitrary time line.  I suspect this is also true of others.

Unfortunately, time is often seen as something that needs to be consumed efficiently and completely.  Thinking about new things or reflecting on your experiences does not give the appearance of being productive—at least in the short-term.  Nevertheless, I believe this is an essential part of living a full and complete life and is an integral part of determining whether a business ultimately survives or withers away.  Most disturbing to me is that I have also come to believe that this is equally applicable to a country that depends on its innovation and creativity.

We ignore creativity and its potential decline at our own peril.  As the cartoonist Walt Kelly wrote in 1952 and later modified and attributed to his Pogo Possum character for the first Earth Day in 1971:  "We have met the enemy and he is us."

What will we do to ensure we keep our creative and innovative edge?  Our future depends on how we answer this question.

References / Links

[1] "Ellis Paul Torrance", http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ellis_Paul_Torrance, Accessed August 21, 2010.

[2] P. Bronson and A. Merryman, “The Creativity Crisis”, Newsweek, vol. CLVI, no. 4, pp. 44-50, July 10, 2010, http://www.newsweek.com/2010/07/10/the-creativity-crisis.html.

[3] C. Graham and J. Plucker, “The Flynn Effect”, http://www.indiana.edu/~intell/flynneffect.shtml, 2001, Accessed August 21, 2010.
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