Is Creativity Declining?

by on July 16, 2010 at 7:32 am in Economics, Education | Permalink

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. 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.

From Newsweek.  I am not at all convinced that creativity is on the decline.  The study cited seems to be unpublished and there isn't much on the author's website which is a little, well, too creative for my tastes.  Nevertheless, the Torrance test and its correlation with lifetime creative is interesting and a good reminder of what IQ tests do not reveal.  I also liked this bit:

When faculty of a major Chinese university asked Plucker to identify trends in American education, he described our focus on standardized curriculum, rote memorization, and nationalized testing. “After my answer was translated, they just started laughing out loud,” Plucker says. “They said, ‘You’re racing toward our old model. But we’re racing toward your model, as fast as we can.’ “

1 Gyan July 16, 2010 at 7:36 am

The author’s website link actually points to the Newsweek article.

2 Alex Tabarrok July 16, 2010 at 8:08 am

Link fixed. thx.

3 Indy July 16, 2010 at 8:45 am

Two things:

1. Creativity is a loaded word with many different passive interpretations. It is a dangerous concept to discuss without a clear definition to narrow these divergent connotations. Many people confuse “inclination towards the fine arts” with “creative” and “technical problem solver” as “not creative”, even when the painter or sculptor can only produce derivative duplicates and the technical problem solver develops truly novel inventions. I’ve seen this issue arise multiple times.

2. If one did measure the pace of “newness” and found it diminishing (look at the decline in new FDA-approvals for drugs), one is presented with an identification problem: Has creativity crashed, or has the unexplored intellectual frontier been pushed so far out by the combined human efforts of the last two centuries that even an order-of-magnitude boost is overall creativity will be insufficient to overcome the fact that all the low-hanging fruit has been indeed been picked? There is an implicit assumption that inventions and growth can just go on forever, but the universe imposes natural limits upon us.

My thesis is that we are nearing The End Of Ideas, and that the marginal return to creativity will be much less in the future than in the past.

4 Kathleen July 16, 2010 at 9:32 am

Ditto Indy on the evolving interpretation of “creativity”.

I agree creativity is decreasing -and by a lot, at least in my industry. I suspect it’s related to the increase in outsourcing work rather than having it at arm’s length. Being directly involved in production and problem resolution are the means to gaining competence. Competence is highly correlated to creativity [see Paul Graham’s essays Taste for Makers (what is good taste) and Copy what you like (developing creativity and competency)].

I’m disinclined to agree we are nearing the end of ideas because constantly evolving variations require ongoing solutions just to remain static, staving entropy. What I suspect is more likely is that subsequent generations won’t know the difference -and won’t look for solutions for that which they don’t realize a higher barre existed previously -outside of an old school museum (usually said with a sneer). How can you miss what you never knew and seek to return to it? If competence is decreasing, the ability to recognize it diminishes and creativity becomes an artifact. At least on my mountain.

5 Andrew July 16, 2010 at 9:48 am

We have not even begun to ideate!

6 Bill July 16, 2010 at 10:21 am

Is creativity measured by output; or is it a process in itself without regard to an output;, or is it an input to a process with other complements, leading to an output?

IF it is measured by output, with other complements, my view is that creativity as an output is increasing, as measured by patents or the changes in processes. (We could have some debate on whether the standard of patentability has declined, but let’s assume it hasn’t.)

If creativity needs complements, then I would argue we have had an explosion of complementary tools to assist creativity. (Taking my occupation, an antitrus lawyer, as an example: it used to be, to stay ahead of the game, having hard copy access to amicus briefs and working papers at the Antitrust Division or FTC, help immensely is seeing direction, and adding your own ideas to developing ideas; and that access was restricted to those who knew about these resources or who had friends or a DC office that was willing to gather this information. Today, that information is all online.) Similarly, if you do acamedic research, having access to working papers in development at leading institutions helped you in the ideas process; today, working papers are online.

So, to the extent that creativity involves complements of other ideas, and access to ideas, I think we have more creative potential than ever before.

Am waiting for the Google book project to really get underway and see what “history” gets written by historians who can cross compile massive databases of old newspapers and diaries, for example, to create new historical accounts. Or, what work can be done by scientists with a background in computational chemistry who now have access to the genome.

Creativity is a process, and involves complements and access to information. And, the mix of complements are increasing and the costs of complements are declining.

7 Andrew July 16, 2010 at 12:12 pm


Interesting, but it still involves some kid or dude trying to think of something. Considering how much of a pain in the arse it is to be creative in a (freaking) graduate department, I have some sympathy with the idea that we are stamping it to death in primary education.

I was in one of them there gifted programs and the major feeling I recall from the experience is the time pressure of having to complete projects.

8 Chris T July 16, 2010 at 12:32 pm

I wonder how many people who disparage IQ, which is well supported, accept this without question.

9 mulp July 16, 2010 at 1:26 pm

The topic was discussed last night on Charlie Rose, rebroadcast on many PBS station today circa noon and some later this afternoon, or streaming video at It seems a lot of research on creativity has been done over the past few decades with published results.

10 Eddie July 16, 2010 at 4:51 pm

When I was a kid, I would be stuck in my room and play with legos or erector sets or army men or draw.

Now, kids play on the Nintendo DS, or surf the net, or watch Sponge Bob.

I’d say it’s a surprise that anybody thinks that creativity is NOT declining.

11 agnostic July 16, 2010 at 9:08 pm

All of the above explanations are wrong because they only apply to this current decline in creativity (from 1990 onward). It’s not as if this is the first time in human history that creativity stalled out or fell from an earlier rise. And none of the earlier ones had anything to do with public school curriculum, the internet, etc.

So, the cause must be at something more general and that waxes and wanes throughout human history. Here, it is the rate of violence: when violence surges, people are spurred to greater creative-mindedness, and when it falls they lose that motivation and become more down-to-earth in their thinking.

Remember that the goal of science is to explain as many things with as few causes as possible.

12 dominos deals July 17, 2010 at 12:52 am

Well stamping out creativity is usually the first goal of any bureaucracy.Creativity does not mean the absence of all structure. Designing a building is both a stressful and creative task.

13 Troy Camplin July 17, 2010 at 3:52 am

We have a decline in creativity because people are taught “thinking skills” but aren’t taught any content to think about. There has been a marked decline in actual creativity and thinking ever since the advent of “critical thinking skills,” which have replaced actual education. You can’t think without having something to think about.

14 gnarledhands July 17, 2010 at 3:22 pm

May I suggest you take a look at the growth of Maker communities in the US. You can start by looking at

I think creativity is alive and well and operating outside of institutional strictures.

15 Troy July 18, 2010 at 12:29 am

Hollywood green light decision are a good example. An uncreative project with reliably predictable costs and profitability is often preferred to a more creative project whose costs and profitably are unpredictable.

Creativity (and being different and best) seems to be some sort of American obsession. A Lot of folks elsewhere might think is just fine copying something that has already been tried and tested and works good enough. It’s certainly more cost effective.

Why the assumption that more creativity is better? Maybe a little is enough, and the people who are already being creative are being creative enough just the way things are now. If everyone is being creative, who is going to deliver the mail and flip the burgers?

16 Troy July 19, 2010 at 7:20 pm

No tech advance wo creativity. Yes. But why does everyone have to be creative? There is no jazz music wo jazz musicians, but not everyone needs to be a jazz musician. We will have jazz music to listen to if a relatively small group of people play jazz music. (as Bertrand Russell once said, we need mailmen but we don’t need for everyone to deliver the mail.)

Let the people who are good at being creative be creative and let the countries who want to be creative leaders pay the costs of going first.

17 mbt shoes August 5, 2010 at 3:13 am

I believe it. Our educational system actively stifles creativity, punishing it outright most of the time.

And the Flynn effect also seems to be flattening out in the U.S. Considering that the Flynn effect is correlated with societal complexity, that’s very not good.

18 New Rugby Jerseys October 27, 2010 at 10:52 pm

Creativity still exists. We can’t get to the innovations and high end technology without logical minds being used. The modern world is full of imagination and creative thinking that’s why it’s too complicated.

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