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Divergent Thinking

The ability to develop original and unique ideas and to envision multiple solutions to a problem.

The concept of divergent thinking was developed in the 1950s by psychologist J.P. Guilford, who saw it as a major component of creativity and associated it with four main characteristics. The characteristics were fluency (the ability to rapidly produce a large number of ideas or solutions to a problem); flexibility (the capacity to consider a variety of approaches to a problem simultaneously); originality (the tendency to produce ideas different from those of most other people); and elaboration (the ability to think through the details of an idea and carry it out). Guilford, whose research was oriented toward testing and measurement (psychometrics), believed that creative thinkers are at a disadvantage when taking standard intelligence tests, which penalize divergent thinking and reward its opposite, convergent thinking—the ability to narrow all possible alternatives down to a single solution (the type of thinking required by multiple choice tests).

Over a number of years, the Aptitudes Research Project (ARP) at the University of Southern California, under Guilford's leadership, devised an extensive sequence of tests to measure intellectual abilities, including creativity. Some of the ARP divergent thinking tests have been widely adapted for use in placing students in gifted programs and evaluating the success of such programs. They include a number of different assessment techniques that measure the key characteristics of fluency, flexibility, and originality. Among the fluency tests are word fluency, which asks test-takers to think of as many words as they can that contain a given letter, and ideational fluency, which involves naming things that belong to a specific category, such as fluids that will burn. Other tests included listing all the possible jobs that might be represented by a specific emblem and writing titles for short stories after having been told their plots. Another popular creativity test derived from the ARP project is the consequences test, in which a person is asked to list the possible consequences of an imaginary event ("What would happen if everyone were immortal?"). In addition to these verbal tests, ARP also devised tests to measure spatial aptitude, which include such tasks as drawing objects using geometrical shapes.

Although creativity is associated with the highest levels of achievement in many fields and presumably valued by society, the educational system often penalizes divergent thinkers. The typical standardized measure of intelligence is the multiple-choice test, which is diametrically opposed to the divergent thinker's problem-solving process. To a creative thinker, it may seem more productive to try finding reasons why all the choices on a multiple-choice question could be correct than to select the preferred answer. In addition, most classroom teaching is heavily biased toward the learning style of convergent thinkers, a fact that helps explain the dismal school performance of such legendary geniuses as Albert Einstein and Thomas Alva Edison, who was considered retarded and expelled from school.

Further Reading

Amabile, Teresa M. Growing Up Creative: Nurturing a Lifetime of Creativity. New York: Crown Publishers, 1989.

Guilford, J.P. The Nature of Human Intelligence. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaPsychological Dictionary: Kenneth John William Craik Biography to Jami (Mulla Nuruddin ʼAbdurrahman ibn-Ahmad Biography