Creativity is fundamental to human life

Frog. Meatball. Icecube. If that looks like a list of completely unrelated nouns, that’s because it is - and it’s part of a test that can quickly measure verbal creativity.

The Divergent Association Task (DAT) - which takes less than four minutes - was designed by researchers from McGill University, Harvard University, and the University of Melbourne to assess divergent thinking.

In a nutshell, that means being able to come up with diverse solutions to open-ended problems and it’s a key job skill in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

(Intrigued? Take the test here in another tab - and then read on to find out more.)

How 10 words can score your creativity

The test involves choosing 10 words that are literally as different from each other as chalk and cheese.

The researchers asked almost 9,000 people from 98 countries to take the test and then used an algorithm to estimate the average ‘semantic distance’ between the words.

So the related words ‘cat and dog’ have a shorter semantic distance between them than ‘cat and concrete’. The creativity comes in the ability to stop thinking about related words while thinking about unrelated ones.


 The more unrelated the words you choose, the more creative you are.


The more unrelated the words you choose, the more creative you are.
Image: PNAS




The psychologists found that those who came up with lists of words with greater semantic distances between them also scored highly on traditional creativity tests. These included thinking of novel and common uses for objects, also known as the Alternative Uses Task.

They wrote: “Choosing these words relies on generating remote associations while inhibiting common ones … Creative people have a semantic memory structure that makes it easier to link remote elements.”

The scoring ranges between 0 and 200, with the average score around 78, the researchers say. The highest score they have seen is 107 - and you might need a few goes to reach over 100.

But don’t be disheartened if you get a low score.

Creativity is a complex process and this task measures only a sliver of it,” the researchers admit. “The task has its limitations; it measures only one aspect of one type of creativity. People who are creative can still get a low score.”

Interestingly, there was a slight difference in scores between men and women, with women scoring higher - and both peaking in their twenties.


How women and men participants compared.


How women and men participants compared.
Image: PNAS




Why creativity is crucial to life and work

“Creativity is fundamental to human life,” said Jay Olsen, a PhD graduate of McGill’s Department of Psychiatry, who was inspired by a childhood game to devise the test. “The more we understand its complexity, the better we can foster creativity in all its forms.”

He said the findings would “enable creativity assessments across larger and more diverse samples with less bias”.

Creativity is essential for solving the big problems facing the world today, it’s also important for leadership and to help the economy.

It came in the top 5 skills that will be required by companies in 2025, according to the World Economic Forum’s latest Future of Jobs survey.

As automation grows, creative roles will persist because creativity is unique to humans, as Scott Belsky, Adobe’s Chief product officer writes.

“Success for the next generation of workers will come down to making an impact in ways robots cannot.”

The top 15 skills companies will be looking for in 2025.


The top 15 skills companies will be looking for in 2025.
Image: Future of Jobs Report 2020



“There’s been this fear that the Fourth Industrial Revolution means that we all need to develop only technology-oriented skills or only highly scientific skills,” says World Economic Forum Managing Director, Saadia Zahidi.

“In fact, the opposite is true. Some of the biggest rising skills of the next few years are going to be creativity, collaboration, interpersonal dynamics between people ... team work. These are things at the forefront of how we relate to each other.”

How can we nurture creativity?

Although some people are naturally more creative than others, it’s never too late to stretch your creative muscles, according to Valerie van Mulukom, assistant professor at Coventry University and research associate in psychology.

Creative imagination, says Mulukom, is made up of both divergent and convergent thinking - the latter being the ability to evaluate an idea on its usefulness, which relies on analytical thinking - the top skill for 2025. “Research has suggested that creative imagination can be boosted through our environment or simply putting in lots of hard work.”

So, that novel might eventually come out of you after a few years of creative courses and plenty of practice. But children need to be taught creativity in school, writes Belsky.

“To stand out in their jobs, our kids must be outfitted to express their ideas visually, to quickly put together a compelling video, or to build a simple prototype to pitch a new idea.

“We need to give the same emphasis to the principles of design that we give to the grammar of sentences, the same attention to color theory that we give to statistics, and teach kids to use video-editing software like we teach them to use spreadsheets.”

The World Economic Forum launched the Reskilling Revolution at Davos during the 50th Annual Meeting in January 2020. It aims to provide a billion people with better education, skills and jobs by 2030 through a series of initiatives bringing together business, civil society and academic organizations.