Symbolic Equivalence Test

Interested in the symbolic scope of creativity, Barron (1988) constructed an instrument to measure the ability to make original and apt transformation of a given image, the Symbolic Equivalence Test (SET). Metaphor has long been considered an important element of thought, but the test does not specify any creativity theory except for Barron’s assumption that the ability to make original and apt transformation of a given image is a key component of creativity in every domain. In the SET, respondents are asked to think of metaphors, or symbolically equivalent images, for certain suggested stimuli. This simple task allows the test to be used through a wide age range and at different levels of ability. The test is scored for (1) number of acceptable or admissible, but not original, responses and (2) number of original responses. Admissible responses are distinguished based on the degree of aptness, rated as 1, 2, or 3. Originality responses can be rated as 4 or 5, based on the degree of originality. The total score on the test is simply the sum of the ratings of the individual responses. The SET relies heavily on expert rating, assuming that people, especially experts, recognize creativity (or originality) when they see it.  Table 2.4 represents an example given by Barron (1988, pp. 87-88).

Table 2.4. An Example of SET Items:  Stimulus Image, Admissible Responses, and Scoring of Responses

Stimulus image: A candle burning low
Admissible responses:
Life ebbing away                                                    (scored 1)
A basin of water emptying down a drain                   (scored 2)
The last drops of coffee going through a filter           (scored 3)
The last pages of a faded book                                (scored 4)
The last hand in a gambler’s last card game              (scored 5)

The SET was reported as a part of studies by Barron (1988) where it was administered to several hundred very creative people. Barron (1988, p. 89) described: “The scores were then correlated with external criterion ratings of creativity of each subject in relation to all others in the relevant professional groups. Substantial positive, statistically significant correlations were found for writers, architects, artists, and entrepreneurs.” Barron also revealed his intention to adapt the scoring procedure to make it less laborious and expensive. The adaptation may result in a mechanically scored multiple-choice form of the test (SET 2).


Barron, F. (1988). Putting creativity to work. In R. J. Sternberg (Ed.). (1988), The nature of creativity (pp. 76-98). Cambridge University Press.


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