Discernment and Creativity

I recently (about 5 minutes ago) read a peer-reviewed article entitled, “Discernment and Creativity: How Well Can People Identify Their Most Creative Ideas?”

The title alone is intriguing. It’s hard enough to get our creative muses to speak to us–but now we have to evaluate the quality of that message, too? Seriously, muse…how about we skip this step and you only give me good ideas in the first place? ‘K thanks.

All joking aside, the article title actually does raise an interesting question. For you writers out there: have you ever written a story that you were really jazzed about, and you expected it to be a big hit with your critique group, only to have it torn apart in class/during the meeting? And on the flip side, have you ever written a story that you felt only so-so about, but then it was really well received by your readers?

Discernment–or “the ability to evaluate the creativity of one’s ideas”–is an important component of psychological theories of creativity. Within the construct of “creativity,” there appear to be at least two distinct processes involved: generation (coming up with the ideas) and evaluation (judging all of the ideas, then retaining and revising the best ideas). Although empirical research has focused more on the generation side of the coin, it makes sense why evaluation might matter: there are some ideas that should immediately see the inside of a trash can. Case in point: the Snuggie, a blanket with sleeves (it makes you look like a monk, although I’ll admit the commercial is quite compelling–www.getsnuggie.com). In other situations–when the ideas have some merit–evaluation can help us decide whether more development is needed or it isn’t worth the extra effort.

When I was about 10, I sent an email to Skittles headquarters with an idea for a new commercial. From what I recall, it had something to do with Jack and the Beanstalk, planting Skittles instead of beans, and growing a beanstalk that spewed the colorful pieces of candy everywhere (remember, memory is fallible; I’ll apologize in advance if I’m misremembering an actual Skittles commercial as my own idea…and this disclaimer is a nice little teaser for my next post, which will deal with cryptomnesia, or unconscious plagiarism!) Anyway, this wasn’t the worst idea in the world, especially for a 10-year-old…but it probably could have been thought out in a little more detail before I sent Skittles an email with a description of the concept and a gracious proclamation that, should they decide to use my idea, I would be fine with receiving 20% of all revenue generated from the ad. (Incidentally, Milton Bradley received a very similar letter from me after I invented a board game for a 4th grade project. I don’t think I mentioned my age in either instance, but my handwriting might have given it away in the latter case.)

In the study mentioned above, Silvia first discusses the idea of accuracy in creativity judgments, and then she sets out to examine (1) whether people are generally discerning and (2) whether some people are more discerning than other people. I’ll skip the finer points of her discussion on accuracy, but basically she points out that there is no “gold standard” for creativity. Creative products don’t have some innate level of creativeness; rather, judgments of creativity are entirely subjective. Instead of accuracy, therefore, it might be more informative to look at extent of agreement of creativity judgments.

Participants in Silvia’s (2008) study completed a variety of measures of personality, cognition, attitudes, and demographics. They also completed four divergent thinking tasks, which are commonly used to study creativity. Two of these tasks were “unusual uses” tasks, in which participants were asked to generate creative uses for two objects, a brick and a knife (it was Miss Ruby, in the attic, with a brick!) . The other two tasks were “instance” tasks, in which participants were asked to list creative responses for both “things that are round” and “things that make noise” (“babies” would fit both categories, I think?). After each task, participants were asked to circle their two most creative responses. Later, three judges independently rated the creativity of all the responses in the study, which were presented to them in an alphabetical list (so the judges did not know which responses came from which participants). Judges read through the entire list of responses once before going back to rate the responses for creativity on a scale of 1 (not at all creative) to 5 (highly creative).

Silvia found that, overall, participants’ ratings of their top two responses agreed with the judges ratings, suggesting that people are generally discerning in their creativity judgments. But were some people in the sample more discerning than others? The personality measures completed by participants examined the “Big Five” personality domains: extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness, neuroticism, and conscientiousness. Consistent with previous research, people who scored high in openness to experience also had higher creativity scores overall. Interestingly, openness to experience also predicted the extent of agreement between the participants’ ratings and the judges’ ratings–people who scored higher in openness to experience were more discerning as well (better able to pick out their most creative ideas). The opposite was true for conscientiousness–higher conscientiousness scores were associated with lower levels of creativity and less discernment.

The take-home message: it appears that more creative individuals are also more discerning, and both of these traits are linked to an individual’s openness to experience.


I don’t know about you, but now I’m thinking I should go out and have a few adventures, and maybe it’ll help my writing career. One possibility: mountain climbing.

I’ll pack my Snuggie.




Silvia, P. J. (2008). Discernment and creativity: How well can people identify their most creative ideas? Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 2(3), 139-146.

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