Creativity and Divergent Thinking

divergent thinking

Divergent thinking is a creative process that involves trying to think of as many possible solutions as you can. It is the opposite of convergent thinking, which usually involves a thought process that follows some set of rules or logic (in which case there may only be 1 or few correct answers).

In contrast to convergent thinking, divergent thinking is usually more spontaneous and free-flow. Individuals try to keep their mind open to any possibilities that present themselves. The more possibilities they come up with, the better their divergent thinking.

Here is a very simple exercise in divergent thinking:

    1) Grab a piece of paper and draw 30 circles (5 columns with 6 circles in each row). Each circle should be about 1 inch in diameter.

    2) Find a timer and set it for 60 seconds.

    3) Time yourself to see how many different drawings you can come up with using the circles. For example: a baseball (1 circle), a planet (1 circle), glasses (2 circles), a face (3 circles – two eyes and a mouth), etc.

The goal is to incorporate each circle into a drawing within the 60 seconds. It doesn’t matter how exactly you do it: you could have 30 drawings with 1 circle each, or 6 drawings with 5 circles each, or anything in between. It all depends on what you can think of.

And don’t worry if you don’t finish, most people don’t. At the end of it count up how many circles you completed. Put that # over 30 – that is your score.

I did this same experiment in my Research Methods class at college. Our group chose to measure differences in creativity between males and females, and this divergent thinking exercise was a great and simple way to quantify creative thinking. Given, creativity is an incredibly difficult thing to quantify, but for purposes of the class this experiment worked well (in case you are interested: we didn’t find any differences in male vs. female creativity).

This idea of divergent thinking can be extrapolated to any object or thing. The only limit is your imagination. Other common practices include thinking of how many different uses you can come up with for:

  • A shoe
  • Duct tape
  • Paperclip

If you think about it, this is really what a lot of creativity boils down to: using objects or things in unconventional ways than how they are usually used.

Just like how psychologist Rosabeth Kanter describes: “Creativity is a lot like looking at the world through a kaleidoscope. You look at a set of elements, the same elements everyone else sees, but then reassemble those floating bits and pieces into an enticing new possibility.”

That’s the same thing we do during these divergent thinking tasks. We look at a common element of our world that everyone else sees, but we utilize those elements in a way that wasn’t thought of before.

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