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Finding Creativity on IQ Tests

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When I was a little tyke, my school psychologist told my parents that I was one of the most creative test takers he’d ever seen, but that it was a darn shame he couldn’t give me any points for being so creative on the IQ test. Instead, he shipped me off to a special school for children with learning disabilities! But is it really true that there’s no way for a school psychologist to award points for creativity during an IQ testing session?

IQ tests have received a very large number of criticisms since their inception. One of the main arguments made against the use of IQ tests is that they don’t measure creativity. But surely creativity involves thoughtful reasoning, idea generation, pattern detection, learning, and other cognitive skills measured to a certain extent by IQ tests. Indeed, recent research conducted by Emily Nusbaum and Paul Silvia suggests that on-the-spot novel problem solving (“fluid intelligence”) and the ability to switch idea categories are both related to the ability to come up with unusual uses for an object. So perhaps throwing away IQ tests entirely would be throwing the baby away with the bathwater. IQ tests can shed some light on a person’s creative cognition if the test is properly administered, and the examiner carefully interprets the behaviors of the child during the testing session.

There are many reasons why a student may be referred to a school psychologist. Perhaps the student is demonstrating a particular learning disability. Perhaps the student appears in need of academic acceleration. When a student is referred to a school psychologist, the clinician may decide to administer an IQ test to determine the student’s pattern of cognitive strengths and weaknesses to inform a custom-tailored intervention. Whatever the reason for the referral, there is good reason to assess creativity. Creative thinking is an important skill, and is often missed when the school psychologist just looks at an individual’s global IQ score (which takes the average performance across different subtests).

When administering an IQ test, it’s crucial that the psychologist adopt the intelligent testing approach. Coined by Alan S. Kaufman, intelligent testing involves a focus on the person being tested, and how that individuals responds, or why that individuals responds in a certain manner, in addition to how well they respond. The psychologist can help the child or adult being evaluated by observing and interpreting a wide range of behaviors, making inferences about observed problem-solving strategies, and interpreting the test profile within the context of pertinent background information about the person, clinical behaviors observed during the evaluation, and the latest theories and research in the field of cognitive science and learning theory. The entire assessment process should viewed as an experiment conducted with a sample size of one person. Such testing requires a knowledgeable researcher, and test results are meaningless until the individual’s scores are put into context by the examiner.

The test administrator should look beyond global IQ scores. Many aspects of psychology are brought to bear in the analysis and interpretation of a cluster of scores, and all of this information is added to what is already known about the client before the testing session even begins. The accumulated background information and reasons for referral are all part of what is included in forming conclusions and preparing treatment and remedial suggestions that attempt to answer the referral questions. In sum, during the test selection, administration, and interpretation process, one should use the following: knowledge of intelligence-creativity research, the latest theories of intelligence and creativity, and clinical skills or experience in working with creative individuals.

In extracting information about creativity from performance on an IQ test, these principles are of the utmost of importance. So what can clinicians do when a referral question requires them to find evidence of a person’s creative potential from a comprehensive assessment? I teamed up with Alan Kaufman’s son James C. Kaufman (who is a superstar in the creativity field) and Elizabeth O. Lichtenberger (a leading assessment specialist) to explore just this question (download full paper here). We believe that a test administrator can use the intelligent testing philosophy to find evidence of creativity within the administered IQ subtests. In particular, we make a few recommendations of how to make use of the already existing individually administered cognitive and achievement batteries to extract information about an individual’s creative potential.

Test selection. A number of different cognitive and achievement tests exist. The test administrator should pick and choose subtests from different batteries to come up with the best collection of tests related to creativity. Tests already exist that measure creativity-related processes, including measures of associational fluency (the ability to name as many words as possible that start with a certain sound or category), writing fluency (the ability to write down sentences in response to different demands), written expression (the ability to write a story related to a picture), and more. In our paper, we include a Table that shows tests that already exist along these lines.Some tasks may be able to provide information about other referral questions as well as creativity. Also, creativity can be present in more than one domain (e.g., visual and verbal modalities), so it’s important to produce a collection of tests that tap a wide range of ways one can express their creativity.

Background information/history. It’s important for the test administrator to collect as much information as possible about the client from the client’s parents and teachers. In doing so, the psychologist should ask people who know the client questions about his or her creative thinking. Does he or she come up with multiple solutions to problems at home/school/work? Does the client get answers wrong because they have their own unique way of understanding questions? Does the client struggle on multiple choice tests because he or she deems none of the answers to be good enough (or he or she comes up with alternative responses)? Does the client have trouble focusing at times because he or she is deep in thought or daydreaming?

Behavioral observations. The test administrator should be an astute observer of an individual’s problem-solving styles and strategies during assessment. The psychologist should gather information about how and why the person responds in a particular way to items. Does an individual try out many different strategies when solving the same type of problem? Does the individual use a trial-and-error problem solving approach? Does the individual use an organized, systematic problem-solving approach? Does the individual elaborate on responses without prompting? Does the individual get frustrated when a task has a forced response that doesn’t allow the individual a chance to be original? Does the individual show signs that he or she prefers less structured tasks? Does the individual respond impulsively? It’s important for the test administrator to pay attention to the individual.

Test interpretation. High test scores don’t necessarily mean high creativity. Each of the subtest scores must be interpreted in the context of the examinee’s referral question, background, observed behaviors, and other test results. It must also be kept in mind that real-world creative greatness requires not only the ability to produce divergent ideas but also the ability to discern which of the ideas are appropriate to a relevant goal, as well as the acquisition of a large database of domain-specific expertise. Knowledge of an individual’s unique pattern of strengths and weaknesses can be combined with other information about the person, including their passions and years of engagement in particular domains of knowledge, to make a sensible recommendation for an intervention. The focus should be improving a child’s creative expression and performance, not holding the child back.

This is just a sampling of our paper. If you are interested in exploring this issue further, I highly recommend you read the full paper (here). For more on other issues in the field of intelligence and intelligence testing, check out the following essential resources:

Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined

The Cambridge Handbook of Intelligence

IQ Testing 101- Alan S. Kaufman

Human Intelligence: Historical Influences, Current Controversies, and Teaching Resources- Jonathan Plucker

Contemporary Intellectul Assessment- Dawn Flanagan and Patti Harrison

Essentials of Cross-Battery Assessment- Dawn Flanagan, Samuel Ortiz, and Vincent Alfonso

IQ and Human Intelligence- Nicholas J. Mackintosh

Human Intelligence- Earl Hunt

Intelligent Testing: Integrating Theory and Clinical Practice- Edited by James C. Kaufman


Portions of this article originally appeared at Psychology Today on July 16, 2011.



image credit: CreativityTheories2012

Scott Barry Kaufman About the Author: Scott Barry Kaufman is Scientific Director of The Imagination Institute and a researcher in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, where he investigates the measurement and development of imagination. His latest book is Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined. Follow on Twitter @sbkaufman.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. liamhutch 3:19 am 07/30/2013

    This is such an interesting article. Mind is a curious thing. I don’t think we will be able to fully understand how it works.

    - Liam Hutch, removing age spots

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  2. 2. ming_on_mongo 12:27 pm 08/27/2013

    Would agree that most major IQ tests, and indeed the very notion of “intelligence” don’t adequately factor in “creativity”, among other things. For example, as a longtime Mensa member myself, have noticed over the years that the organization seems increasingly filled with folks of the Aspergers persuasion, who are usually very bright and score well on traditional IQ tests like the Stanford Binet. But unfortunately IMO, they don’t seem to do so well with abstract or creative thought, which of course creates a group of stereotypically “bright” but otherwise very “literal” folks with an encyclopedic knowledge of “facts”, though otherwise lacking many other more abstract skills, like creativity, empathy, emotional self-control, the ability to discuss conceptual things, pick up on social cues, etc.. BTW, Googling mensa & aspergers indicates that this is not an uncommon observation.

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