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Thinking Skills and Creativity 8 (2013) 1–10

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Thinking Skills and Creativity
journal homepage: http://www.elsevier.com/locate/tsc

Creative problem solving as sequential BVSR: Exploration (total ignorance) versus elimination (informed guess) Dean Keith Simonton ∗
Department of Psychology, University of California, Davis, Davis, CA 95616, USA

a r t i c l e

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a b s t r a c t
Although the theory that creativity requires blind variation and selective retention (BVSR) is now more than a half-century old, only recently has BVSR theory undergone appreciable conceptual development, including formal three-parameter definitions of both creativity and sightedness. In this article, these new developments are for the first time extended to encompass sequential BVSR, that is, when ideas are generated and tested consecutively rather than simultaneously. Formulated in terms of creative problem solving, sequential BVSR is shown to have two forms: (a) exploratory in which the person decreases total ignorance and (b) eliminatory in which the person vets informed guesses. Only in the latter case does sightedness for both single potential solutions and the set of potential solutions necessarily increase with each generation-and-test trial. Exploratory BVSR is illustrated by Edison’s search for a practical incandescent filament, whereas eliminatory BVSR is exemplified by Watson’s discovery of the DNA base code. Hence, although epistemologically and psychologically distinct, both represent important forms of creative problem solving. © 2013 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

Article history: Received 15 September 2012 Received in revised form 2 December 2012 Accepted 9 December 2012 Available online xxx Keywords: Creativity Problem solving Sequential search Sightedness BVSR

1. Introduction More than a half-century ago Donald T. Campbell (1960) argued for a single generic process that could account for creative thought and “other knowledge processes” (p. 380), namely, blind variation and selective retention, or BVSR (Simonton, 2011b). The basic idea is that the only way to find out something truly new—whether a discovery, invention, or adaptation—is to engage in some kind of trial-and-error or generation-and-test procedure. In contrast, if the ideas or responses are already known to work in advance, then the person has merely engaged in reproductive rather than productive thinking, confirming what is previously known rather than venturing into the unknown. Regrettably, Campbell did not precisely define the central terms of his theory (Simonton, 2011b, in press). In particular, he failed to define either what it meant for an idea to be “blind” or what it signified to be “creative.” This failure led to unnecessary controversy because neither proponents nor opponents were using the key concepts in the same way (Simonton, 2011c). Recently, I have attempted to remedy this regrettable problem by introducing new formal definitions, computer simulations, empirical inquiries, case studies, and mathematical models (e.g., Damian & Simonton, 2011; Simonton, 2007, 2010, 2012a, 2012c, 2012d, in press). Three of these new developments are of special importance to the present article. First, the key terms have been defined as quantitative variables rather than qualitative attributes (Simonton, 2012d, in press). Hence, rather than talk about whether an idea is creative or not and blind or not—yielding an artificial 2 by 2 table of just 4 possibilities—the discussion shifts to relative degrees of creativity and blindness. In fact, blindness is conceived as just one end of a continuous blind-sighted spectrum (Simonton, 2011a, in press). This more

∗ Tel.: +1 530 752 1677; fax: +1 530 752 2087. E-mail address: dksimonton@ucdavis.edu 1871-1871/$ – see front matter © 2013 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.tsc.2012.12.001

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D.K. Simonton / Thinking Skills and...
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