Thursday, January 19, 2012

A Barometer for Creativity

Back in 1969 my mother opened a small real estate office which I still somewhat desultorily operate. Among her early listings was a house she called a dipsy-doodle. Stairs abounded and doubled back: no two rooms in the house were on precisely the same level. The footprint of the house was anything but rectangular; it twisted this way and that. The lot was just as irregular, and it sloped down from the road with grassy terraces cut into the bank. She wrote a newspaper ad for it that asked, “Are you creative?” It pulled the best response of any ad she ever wrote. She even got a couple of letters (this was before e mail) from out of state, which answered, “Yes, I am creative,” and which asked for more information. It seemed that pretty much everyone, by self-judgment anyway, was above average in creativity.

In the end, none of those who answered the ad bought the house. (The property eventually sold, but to a walk-in who hadn’t known about it previously.) The customers who showed up in response to the ad and eventually made a purchase chose, without exception, very conventional properties instead. (Some afterward were radical enough to paint their walls colors other than white.) The dipsy-doodle evidently required a more creative approach to daily life than most people in the end were willing to contemplate. Whenever I see a mention of creativity in the news, as in a recent LiveScience article asserting that creative thinkers cheat more often than conventional thinkers, I recall the ad and ponder what “creative” means at bottom. I think most folks who answered the ad erroneously equated it with “bohemian,” though they proved to be not even that.

The usual casual definition of creativity is an ability to think outside the box, but that is not entirely adequate. An idea is not creative just because it is outlandish or original. It also has to make some kind of sense (or, in humanistic endeavors, achieve some artistic end). For example, when you are faced with a task of moving an object too heavy for you to lift with your own muscles, a friend might suggest, “Get a million ants to lift it for you.” That is certainly outside the box thinking, but it is not creative; it is just crazy. Rigging a makeshift block-and-tackle out of materials in your garage would be creative.

A real example of creative thinking is related by Dr. Alexander Calandra, a physics professor at Washington University. A colleague asked him to be an impartial judge in a dispute over a test score. The colleague had asked his students to describe how to determine the height of a building using a barometer. One student answered, “Take a barometer to the top of the building, attach a long rope to it, lower the barometer to the street, and then bring it up, measuring the length of the rope. The length of the rope is the height of the building.” The student thought he should get credit because he answered the question, but the professor was reluctant because the student had evaded the intent of the question. Calandra suggested that the student simply should answer the question again. The student immediately came up with several more answers, not one of which involved atmospheric pressure. They included the following: drop the barometer off the roof and time its fall to the ground using the formula d = 1/2at2 to calculate the height; on a sunny day, measure the height of the barometer, the shadow of the barometer, and the shadow of the building, and then by the law of proportion calculate the height of the building; and, my personal favorite, knock on the superintendent’s door and give him the barometer in exchange for telling you the height of the building. Calandra said to give the student credit.

By the way, I don’t think creative people are more likely to cheat. They merely define honesty creatively.

Creative accounting
I think some financial institutions in the news employed these two.


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