Are Smart People Creative

Are Smart People Creative?

KH Kim, professor, Educational Psychology, The College of William & Mary

Schools use IQ scores and standardized test scores (which also correlate to IQs) to identify gifted children, favoring academic achievers and teacher pleasers. This identification system eliminates 70 to 80 percent of the top creative children, who tend to be nonconformists but are potential innovators. IQ scores are also often used to predict future potential, but this process also eliminates most future innovators, including Nobel Prize winners such as William Shockley and Luis Alvarez.

Many people believe that IQ and creativity are synonymous. Many scholars, for example, believe in the threshold theory, which suggests that only the smartest people –– less than top 10 percent of the population, with an IQ above 120 –– can be creative. This assertion, however, is not supported by my research. Instead, I have discovered the following surprising results:

  1. Meta-analytic studies show that IQ and creativity are weakly related at any level, suggesting the threshold does not exist. Also, IQ data from 108 countries show that high national IQs correlate to high international test scores but not to a high number of innovators.
  2. Many of the greatest innovators in history did not have high IQs. In fact, innovators who earned low grades in school achieved more revolutionary innovation than those who earned high grades.
  3. Americans’ IQs and standardized test scores have steadily increased over time, but since 1990 their creativity, especially children’s creativity, has decreased.  This divergence would not occur if IQ and creativity were synonymous.
  4. People with high IQs exhibit adequate inbox thinking (similar to convergent thinking), but they are often conformists who exhibit inadequate outbox thinking (similar to divergent thinking). Creativity is making something unique and useful, therefore outbox thinking is necessary for unique ideas (in addition to inbox thinking for useful ideas).
  5. A creation must be promoted to be recognized as an innovation by society, and people with high IQs find this endeavor difficult. Promotion requires outbox thinking to develop a unique way to attract attention. It also requires understanding others’ emotions (including their wants and needs) and communicating features and benefits of the creation in a clear and meaningful way; this helps others readily recognize the value of the creation.
  6. Instead of emphasizing high IQs or other standardized test scores, the aim should be to develop children’s subject of Curiosity, Preference, or Interest (CPI) –– subject areas that inspire curiosity, preference, or enjoyment –– as early as possible. Children should then be encouraged to develop expertise in their CPI (a thorough mastery of knowledge and skills of a specific subject). The foundation of creative thinking requires developing expertise for at least 10 years in one’s subject of CPI.


When I moved to America, I was happy that my children would not experience the “exam hell” that Asian children endure. Alas, they had to experience standardized testing “nightmares” because of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Since NCLB was passed, schools have increasingly created standardized testing nightmares brought on by state-mandated tests. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) that was recently passed also requires mandatory state testing. The intention behind NCLB was to make all children “smart,” but instead, it pressed no child ahead, curious, or creative. These Acts have been successful in producing smart test-takers –– rather than smart children –– while squashing their curiosity. Furthermore, college and graduate school admission procedures worsen students’ nightmares by increasingly, heavily relying on standardized tests such as the SAT, ACT, GRE, GMAT, MCAT, and LSAT. These exams reinforce students’ test-taking skills by selecting smart test-takers, leaving future innovators behind. Adding to the problem, these tests measure students’ lower-order thinking skills such as memorization and comprehension. Although memorization and comprehension skills are necessary for developing initial expertise in students’ CPI, further development requires application skills so that students can apply learned materials to new or real world situations and solve them appropriately. Most of the aforementioned tests often do not measure application skills. Furthermore, standardized testing nightmares stifle students’ higher-order inbox thinking (critical thinking) and outbox and newbox thinking.  Students are conditioned to pick the right answer, instead of exploring all angles of a future problem to solve it.

The more highly selective colleges are, the more they are dependent on students’ test scores in their admission decision. However, students’ scores highly correlate to their IQ and their family income, which is disadvantageous to students from lower-income backgrounds. Higher-income families have the money to pay for multiple test-taking sessions, expensive college-prep high schools, and test-prep classes or tutoring.

Meanwhile, testing companies increasingly get richer. American parents pay testing companies hundreds of millions of dollars for tests and test-prep materials each year. Testing companies such as the Educational Testing Service (ETS), the College Board, and the ACT, Inc. have reaped enormous financial benefits from the standardized testing nightmares. Many top executives of these companies make more money than the presidents of many prestigious universities do, and the companies do not have to pay federal taxes because they are nonprofit organizations.

Instead of helping testing companies get increasingly richer, America should invest money in developing children’s CPI and corresponding expertise as early as possible, along with the promotion of outbox thinking skills. All children are born curious and with natural outbox thinking skills. Prior to 1990, American parents and educators provided children with opportunities to exercise outbox thinking skills, the exploration of CPI, and various career avenues for creativity development. It was understood that not all answers can be found on standardized tests. America cultivated the 4S (soil, sun, storm, and space) climates for children, which nurtured their 4S attitudes. America produced resourceful cross-pollinators (in the soil climate), curious optimists (in the sun climate), resilient hard workers (in the storm climate), and defiant dreamers (in the space climate) who applied ION thinking skills for innovation. The defiant spirit — which is reflected in neither test-taking skills nor IQs — is what resulted in generations of American innovators, scientific discovery and invention, technology, business, entrepreneurship, sports, leadership, education, and the arts.

Parents and educators must cultivate the 4S climates for all children, not just for academic achievers or teacher pleasers, to recapture the innovation that is being tested out of them.

(This article is an excerpt of the Chapter 1 of The Creativity Challenge: How We Can Recapture American Innovation, and all of the original sources are found in the book.)