Divergent Thinking

What is it?

Divergent thinking is a component of problem solving that involves the ability to generate many creative (unique and useful) ideas. It is often contrasted with convergent thinking, which involves the ability to reach a single creative solution. People who demonstrate high creativity on divergent thinking measures have very different functional connectivity from people who demonstrate lower creativity on the same measures (read more about this here). Divergent thinking is also associated with specific personality traits, moods, and particular modes of attention.

How is it measured?

Typically, divergent thinking is measured with laboratory tests such as the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking and the Guilford Alternative Uses Tasks. These tests are time-limited; that is, people must generate creative ideas or solutions to the given prompts within a few minutes. They are also generally administered in laboratory conditions, but some researchers have used diary studies to measure real-life divergent thinking and creativity.

Ideas generated through divergent thinking tests are often scored for creativity (i.e., how useful and unique the idea is) in two manners: a composite creativity score or scores for each component of divergent thinking. Composite creativity scores are generated by raters (i.e., people who were trained to determine how creative an idea is) who provide numerical scores of how original and creative the ideas are. For example, a score of 1 could be an idea that is not very original, useful, and unique (or not very creative) whereas a score of 5 is an idea that is highly creative.

Another method of scoring creativity is to provide numerical scores for each component of divergent thinking. These components include fluency, flexibility, originality, and (sometimes) elaboration. Fluency is the ability to come up with many ideas, and it is calculated by counting the number of unique (i.e., non-repeating) ideas generated. Flexibility is the ability to come up with ideas from different categories. For example, when asked to come up new and unusual uses for a brick, you might say "flower pot" (category: decoration) and crushed up to use as pigment (category: material). Originality is a measure of how unique the ideas are. It is usually calculated by counting the number of statistically infrequent ideas (typically reported by fewer than 5% of the sample). Elaboration is the ability to generate details along with their unique, unusual, and creative idea. This is considered an uncommon measure of divergent thinking, since people are less likely to elaborate on their ideas (and more likely to generate new ideas) unless the instructions prompt people to provide more details.

Divergent thinking and attention

Like insight and analytic problem solving, divergent thinking is related to specific "modes" of attention. Specifically, selective attention, or attention that is focused on a small number of elements while all other items are ignored, is involved in divergent thinking. Focused, selective attention helps one to narrow down on a single idea that is creative and original, while "screening out" ideas that are dominant but more common and less creative. Moreover, even though this attention is focued, one must still be able to flexibly engage in new ideas, perhaps from different categories. You can read a comprehesive review of the divergent thinking and attention literature here.

My research on attention and divergent thinking has shown that selective attention may be beneficial for some components of divergent thinking but not others. We manipulated attention using a version of the Navon letter task. People were asked to either pay attention to the big (global) letter and ignore the small letters, or they were asked to pay attention to the small letters and ignore the big letter. Before and after this attention manipulation, we asked people to come up with creative uses for ordinary objects (such as pens or shoes). We then looked at changes in three different components of divergent thinking - fluency, flexibility, and originality - before and after the attention manipulation.

We found that people who paid attention to the big letter and ignored the small letters used more selective attention, and having more selective attention subsequently increased fluency. However, people with more selective attention did not demonstrate more flexibility. Rather, people with slightly less selective attention (though their attention was still focused) were more likely to flexibly switch to new categories of ideas. Thus, more selective attention appears to be beneficial for generating more ideas in a short period of time, but too much selective attention is not necessarily conducive for generating ideas from multiple categories.

Analyses for some of my divergent thinking research is still ongoing, so this section will be updated to reflect new results soon!

Relevant papers & presentations

Ng, T., & Beeman, M. (2018). Attention to the local level of hierarchical stimuli increases creative flexibility. Poster presented at the 59th Annual Meeting of the Psychonomic Society, New Orleans, LA.
Ogunlana, E., Ng, T. & Beeman, M. (2018). The Effect of Positive and Negative Mood on Divergent Thinking Performance. Poster presented at the 2018 Annual Meeting of the NU Bioscientist Program, Evanston, IL.