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Testing Creativity

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Widow. Bite. Monkey. What word goes with these three words? This is the kind of question that is asked on the Remote Associates Test, which psychologists use to study creativity. In a new study, which will be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, psychological scientists took a closer look at the test to see why people go wrong. (The answer to that question is coming soon, so think about it now.)

People who have an easier time coming up with answers in the Remote Associates Test, or RAT, are generally more creative. “It correlates well with other measures of creativity,” says David Huber of the University of California-San Diego. He did the research with Nitin Gupta, Yoonhee Jang, and Sara C. Mednick. It was Mednick who inspired the work; her father, Sarnoff Mednick, developed the test in the 1960s. Mednick is a sleep researcher, and she recently started using the RAT herself to study learning during sleep. She wondered if she could learn something from wrong answers on the RAT.

Most people aren’t very good at the RAT. The questions are intentionally difficult. Huber and his colleagues wanted to find out where the wrong answers came from, so they gave the Remote Associates Test to participants, but in a setup that made wrong answers even more likely: each person was only given 30 seconds to answer each question. Then Huber used a database on what words people commonly associate with each other to see how the words and the wrong answers were linked.

Huber and his colleagues found that people who got the question wrong picked more common words. For example, while most people got the right answer to the question above, “spider,” many minds went to “black,” which is a more commonly used word than spider and relates to “widow.” People usually know when they have the wrong answer, but they weren’t able to get past the more common word to the right answer.

“There’s kind of this common idea that too much knowledge can be a hindrance to creativity,” Huber says. It might be a child or an outsider who comes up with a brilliant new way to solve a problem, for example. Maybe it’s because experts know too much that they’ll stick with a familiar idea—like a familiar word—rather than coming up with something new. “To be creative, you need to use the knowledge related to the problem but not be biased to give the same answers that work for other problems.”