Herbert Floyd Crovitz, Professor of Psychology at Duke University, USA, is famous for his book on memory, ‘Galton’s walk: Methods for the analysis of thinking, intelligence and creativity’ (New York: Harper & Row, 1970). Despite a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis at the age of 18, he had a rewarding and long life, with substantial contribution to the science of human memory, problem solving and creative living. Based on the ‘random walk’ theory of Sir Francis Galton, who was the half-cousin of Charles Robert Darwin, Crovitz developed some methods for the analysis of the thinking process as such. In a ‘random walk’, processes are condemned to regress towards the mean or reverse to mediocrity. Only regular practice of creative thinking could save a person from this vicious circle!
In this book, Crovitz presents a method of relational algorithm that would help explore solutions to a variety of problems. Crovitz started with a premise, “action solves problem”. Every solution is the result of action of something on something else. Thus, an action verb and an object on which the action is executed assumed importance in Crovitz’s model. Now the action verbs interact with the objects based on a relational word. Out of the vocabulary defined in the Ogden’s Basic English, a simplified version of English language created by the linguist and philosopher Charles Kay Ogden, Crovitz simply chose 42 words as follows: about, at, for, of, round, to, across, because, from, off, still, under, after, before, if, on, so, up, against, between, in, opposite, then, when, among, but, near, or, though, where, and, by, not, out, through, while, as, down, now, over, till and with.
Relational algorithms were developed by combining elements from a given problem with randomly chosen relational words from the above list.
Classical Application of Relational Algorithm
As examples of the technique, Crovitz uses the relational-algorithm to solve a series of
problems proposed by Karl Duncker, who hypothesized that solution mostly lies in the problem statement itself. Duncker introduced a number of classical problems, which warranted creative solutions. An example is his famous radiation problem, as stated below:
“Given a human being with an inoperable stomach tumor, and rays which destroy organic tissue at sufficient intensity, by what procedure can one free him of the tumor by these rays and at the same time avoid destroying the healthy tissue which surrounds it.” (‘On Problem Solving’, 1945).
Crovitz’s relational algorithm defines only one thing (subject) acts on or relates with another thing (object). It compares only two things at a time. Hence, he considered two possibilities: “How a ray could be related to another ray?” and “How a given body relates to a ray?”. Crovitz related a ray with another ray in the following ways, using the relational words already defined:
“Take a ray about a ray.”
“Take a ray across a ray.”
“Take a ray after a ray.”
“Take a ray against a ray.”
“Take a ray among a ray.”, etc.
Further, relating a given body with a ray, the following scenarios were created:
“Take the body about a ray”;
“Take the body across a ray”;
“Take the body after a ray”;
“Take the body against a ray”;
“Take the body among a ray”; etc.
Crovitz could show that many of these relational statements were already creative solutions to the given Dunker’s problem, if one could rightly interpret them. For example, “Take a ray across a ray” would represent a solution where individual rays were not of sufficient strength to destroy tissue, but when added by crossing, would destroy the tissue at the point of intersection. Similarly, in the second set, "Take the body round the ray" could be interpreted as rotating the body about the tumor so that the focus of the ray would be that centre. They are, after all, the creative solutions implemented in the therapy today!
Contributions of VanGundy
Arthur VanGundy, A. B. in his book, ‘101 Activities for teaching creativity and problem solving’ (2005), elaborates on relational algorithm and its application in the creative problem solving. VanGundy has extended the list of relational words of Crovitz further by adding 19 more relational words to the list. They were: above, below, except, along, beneath, into, amid, beside, past, around, beyond, since, behind, during, throughout, toward, upon, within and without. These relational words open new horizons for creative thinking, suggests VanGundy. The adapted method was called, ‘Preppy Thoughts’, which simplified the serious looking name, Relational Algorithm.
How does the Relational Algorithm work?
This method works by evoking visual images in your mind at par with the relational words. Some such images will be usually absurd or strange. The absurd or truly strange images have the ability to kick start creative imagination, leading to creative problem solving. The purpose of the relational algorithm is to combine the elements from the problem statements with randomly chosen words from a given set. In effect, we have purposefully developed relational words, that work as random stimuli.
The Method of Relational Algorithm: A Procedure
A multi-step procedure to develop creative solutions to problems was also developed by the Relational Algorithm by VanGundy.
Step 01: Write a brief statement of your problem
This is to render the problem at hand with sufficient clarity and thus to facilitate its creative solution. Let us, for example, define the problem of a teacher, who wants to make his lectures attractive to the academically weak students also.
“How might I attract the weakest of my students to my lectures?”
Step 02: Underline the action verb and the object
“How might I attract the weakest of my students to my lectures?”
Step 3: Insert relational words between the action verb and the object
Step 4: Develop creative solutions inspired by relational algorithm
· Can I attract the attention of students by referring to what students feel about themselves, encouraging a kind of self-exploration?
· Can I attract attention of students by virtually taking them along to a place related to the subject matter?
· Can I attract the attention of students by offering them a surprise at the end of the lecture?
· Can I attract the attention of the students by momentarily distracting them intentionally?
The Method of Relational Algorithm helps us to detach ourselves from the usual relations between an action on an object, whereby we are left to freewheel to identify further creative options arising from associating new relational words instead. It could trigger creative flow!