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.”
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.
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.
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's used trash cans full of sand to protect his tent from strafing by German planes, so he adapted that idea to roads.