Fluid thinking and creativity: constructs and tasks

I recently read an interesting paper which reported a pilot study on the effects of creative reminiscence on people with dementia and their carers (Fletcher & Eckberg, 2014). The paper is helpful in a variety of ways, not least for the ways in which they seek to assess the impact the sessions. One sentence caught my eye and has provoked a bit of ruminating. The sentence was, “Flood and Scharer (2006) proposed that promoting creativity in elders could help them make better adjustments to the challenges of aging, and because it is associated with fluid thinking, may help them remain more self-reliant.”

I confess that, a few months ago, I would have read this and not given it a great deal of thought and I’m left with the impression that the authors also felt that the link between creativity and fluid thinking was fairly unproblematic. I want to make it a bit more problematic.

I have to admit that I’ve not read the Flood & Scharer reference but it is on my list of papers to read. (That list rarely gets shorter!) So, I am going to make some assumptions about what the authors intend, starting with the notion of ‘fluid thinking’.

I’m assuming that the term ‘fluid thinking’ refers to basically the same concept as ‘fluid intelligence’. Fluid intelligence is “a complex human ability that allows us to adapt our thinking to a new cognitive problem or situation” (Jaeggi et al., 2008). It is a construct that emerges out of psychometric intelligence testing. Test scores from across a population are subjected to a statistical technique known as factor analysis, which looks for common sources of variance within the data and then ascribes names and meanings to the different sources of variance. This is not to say that the constructs lack psychological reality: general intelligence scores predict behaviour in domains far removed from the tests themselves whilst crystalline intelligence reflects the episodic knowledge that we accumulate over time. However, the constructs are not predicated on any understanding of how the brain works.

One really contentious issue is whether we can deliberately improve these forms of intelligence. I recently had to hand-write at speed an essay on this topic and I’m not going to regurgitate it here. The short version is that whilst it is obvious that crystalline intelligence grows over our lifetime, the question of how amenable fluid intelligence is to intervention is a source of on-going academic debate.

To be clear: we have this construct, ‘fluid intelligence’ and we have tasks that test or assess (aspects of) that construct. Experimental work has shown that training on a task can improve performance on that task but it is less than clear whether those improvements can transfer over to other tasks which also draw on aspects of fluid intelligence (“far transfer”). The paper by Jaeggi et al. (2008) was one of the first papers to apparently demonstrate far transfer. But a later attempt at repeating the study, with a more rigorous procedure, failed to replicate the findings (Redick et al., 2013) (To add further complexity to the situation both of these papers are looking at both fluid intelligence and working memory. Working memory is a different psychological construct with a different academic lineage which, everyone seems to agree, ought to have something to do with fluid intelligence even if everyone can’t agree what that relationship might be!) Subsequent reviews of studies (e.g. Shinvaer, 2014) have similarly failed to agree on whether far transfer has been achieved.

I haven’t even factored aspects of cognitive ageing into this and, alas, they are relevant. Nevertheless, the upshot of this is that the claim that creativity can promote fluid thinking needs to be treated with a lot more caution.

Furthermore, having wrestled with these various constructs and the problematic links between construct and task-demand… I’ve begun to question the construct of ‘creativity’. There have been various attempts to define creativity (e.g., Ken Robinson’s definition which underpinned the Creative Partnerships programme) but without a great deal of consensus. Without a clear construct it is difficult to set it up as a causal or explanatory factor. Without a clear construct the relationship between creativity and other constructs is equally problematic.

In the Fletcher and Eckberg paper, the participants were also given ‘attention control’ activities. This seems to suggest that attention control has some sort of relationship to creativity..? It certainly features in some models of working memory.

I acquired a new motto last term: “It’s not a mess, it’s complicated.” The caveat to the motto being: “(if it can be disaggregated)”. If creativity can be disaggregated then there is a better chance that we could demonstrate clearer links to other psychological constructs and perhaps tease apart what goes on in rich (if not messy) therapeutic encounters.

Fletcher, T.S. & Eckberg, J.D. (2014). The Effects of Creative Reminiscing on Individuals with Dementia and Their Caregivers: A Pilot Study. Physical & Occupational Therapy In Geriatrics, 32(1), 68-84

Flood M, Scharer K. (2006). Creativity enhancement: Possibilities for successful aging. Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 27, 939–959

Jaeggi, S.M., Buschkuehl, M., Jonides, J. & Perrig, W.J. (2008). Improving fluid intelligence with training on working memory. PNAS, 105 (19), 6829–6833

Redick, T.S., et al. (2013). No Evidence of Intelligence Improvement After Working Memory Training: A Randomized, Placebo-Controlled Study. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 142 (2), 359–379

Shinaver III, C.S., Entwistle, P.C. & Söderqvist, S. (2014). Cogmed WM Training: Reviewing the Reviews. Applied Neuropsychology: Child, 3:3, 163-172


About Bruce Davenport

Museum educator and researcher.
This entry was posted in Cognition, measurement of impact. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Fluid thinking and creativity: constructs and tasks

  1. matripsyche says:

    I think that only the first part of the sentence referred to the Flood and Scharer paper (“promoting creativity in elders could help them make better adjustments to the challenges of aging”), because there was nothing in it about fluid thinking. I think that part about fluid thinking is just Fletcher and Eckberg’s own idea.

    I agree that creativity is a weird sort of construct. Flood & Scharer use the Similes Preferences Inventory to measure it. The elderly people in their sample have to choose which simile they’d prefer. For example: as slippery as…slumber/soup/mud/tar/an eel. It’s rated so that the more unusual your answer, the higher you score in creativity. This seems hard to justify to me. There’s so many different reasons why someone might choose a usual or an unusual simile. A monkey would get a higher score on this test than a human who responds to familiar phrases.

    BTW I love your project of understanding what happens when you give someone an object to hold. There’s so many parts to it.

    • Thank you for your comment, matripsyche. I was mindful that I hadn’t actually read the Flood & Sharer paper and your clarification is really helpful.
      At the moment, I’m doing some reading in preparation for writing a sort of position paper about methodological and political issues around measuring the impact of object handling and reminiscence. So your observation about Flood & Scharer’s methods are very useful. I will definitely have to read that paper now!

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