Postformal thinking as a predictor of creativity and of the identification and appreciation of irony and metaphor.
The purpose of this study was to replicate postformal thinking as a predictor of creativity and to investigate whether it would also predict the identification and the subjective appreciation of metaphor and irony. Eighty seven undergraduate participants completed the Social Paradigm Belief Inventory (SPBI), the Divergent Thinking Test (DTT), the Metaphor and Irony Test (MIT) and a scale to measure mood change. Creativity and the identification and appreciation of metaphor and irony were predicted positively by postformal thinking and negatively by formal thinking. Mood change was predicted by both the identification and the appreciation of metaphor and irony but not by formal or postformal thinking. These findings support Kramer's theory of postformal thinking and the view that sensitivity to contradiction, or ambiguity, plays a central role in creativity, postformal thinking and in the processing of irony and metaphor.

Article Type:
Communicative disorders (Risk factors)
Communicative disorders (Psychological aspects)
Communicative disorders (Research)
Metaphor (Psychological aspects)
Metaphor (Research)
Blouin, Philippe S.
McKelvie, Stuart J.
Pub Date:
Name: North American Journal of Psychology Publisher: North American Journal of Psychology Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Education; Psychology and mental health Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2012 North American Journal of Psychology ISSN: 1527-7143
Date: March, 2012 Source Volume: 14 Source Issue: 1
Event Code: 310 Science & research
Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number:
Full Text:
Communication is fundamental to social interaction. Language is probably the most important medium of human communication, whether in the form of speech or the written word. When the main goal is to share precise information, the messages must be accurate and easy to interpret literally. However, when the goal is to communicate ambiguity and perhaps also provoke affect, the message may be conveyed implicitly rather than explicitly. This can be accomplished using the linguistic devices of metaphor and irony.

Metaphors, which have appeared in ancient texts such as Homer's Odyssey and the Hindu Vedas, convey meaning indirectly using a form of analogy. According to Low (2002), their power lies in contradiction and ambiguity. For example, in Shakespeare's classic statement "All the world's a stage", at a primary, literal level, we have an obvious contradiction, since a stage is clearly not equal to the world; however, at a secondary, or figurative level, we have a form of analogy or comparison, in which both concepts become fused and their shared qualities are made apparent.

Like metaphor, irony also has a long history, having appeared in Ancient Greek comedy and as a device employed by Socrates (Pexman, 2008). According to Pexman, irony is a nonliteral language that makes salient a discrepancy between expectations and reality. Consequently, contradiction is also central to irony. Situational irony (also known as cosmic irony) refers to occasions when the actual outcome of events is contrary to the expected outcome. For example, the "unsinkable" Titanic not only went down, but did so on its maiden voyage. Verbal irony, for its part, designates instances in which an individual states the opposite of what he or she truly thinks (e.g. "that's the best idea I've heard in years!"). As with metaphor, we are faced with a fundamental ambiguity, where one is challenged by the simultaneous, yet contradictory statements : A = B (this idea is great), and A [not equal to] B (this idea is not great).

Researchers have investigated the psychological processes that underlie the comprehension of metaphor and irony. For example, studies of brain imaging have shown distinctive patterns of activity associated with exposure to these linguistic devices (Coulson & Van Petten, 2002; Regel, Gunter, & Friederici, 2011). In addition, insights have been gained from populations such as young children and people with autism or brain damage who have difficulty processing nonliteral language (Pexman, 2008).

It is clear that metaphor and irony cannot be fully appreciated by rational processes such as standard verbal intelligence, because logical reasoning cannot admit the simultaneous existence of two contradictory elements. According to Low (2002), the power of metaphor and irony comes from their ability to call "upon the creativity of the reader as well as of the poet to contain the ambiguity" (p. 198). The link between metaphor and creative thinking was identified long ago by Aristotle (Glicksohn, Kraemer, & Yisraeli, 1993), but the idea that contradiction is important is also consistent with Koestler's (1964) notion of creativity, which he says arises when a single situation or idea is perceived in "two self-consistent but habitually incompatible frames of reference" (p. 35).

Psychologists have conducted extensive research on creativity, discussing how it should be defined, how it should be measured and how it is related to standard intelligence (Batey, Furnham, & Safiullina, 2011; Kaufman & Plucker, 2011; Nusbaum & Silvia, 2011). Some of the most important contributions to these questions have been made by Guilford (1967), who integrated creativity into his structure of intellect model as a process of divergent production (or divergent thinking) in which people generate answers to open-ended questions (Baer & Kaufman, 2006). Indeed, some IQ tests contain subtests that tap this process (Kaufman, Kaufman, Lichtenberger, 2011).

If understanding metaphor and irony requires nonliteral processing that requires some creativity, then the two skills should be related. This idea received support from a study by Glicksohn et al. (1993), who found significant correlations of .43 and .54 between the Barron Symbolic Equivalence Test (measuring metaphoric thinking) and the Alternate Uses Test (measuring ideational fluency/creativity). One purpose of the present study is to examine whether the ability to identify metaphor and irony is related to a person's creativity. It was predicted that the correlations found by Glicksohn et al. would be replicated.

As noted above, implicit techniques such as metaphor and irony can be employed to convey meaning, but they may also have a greater overall impact on the listener or reader than explicit or literal communication (Wicker, 1975). The full impact of metaphor and irony requires that the message be cognitively understood (identified), but it also may require that the message is subjectively appreciated, and that this appreciation is accompanied by a positive change in affect. Consequently, a second goal of this study was to examine not only the ability to identify metaphor and irony, but also the appreciation of it and the possibility of a positive mood change.

It was argued above that the ability to identify metaphor and irony may be related to creativity. Recently, it has been suggested that creativity itself may be rooted in a person's cognitive development (Wu & Chiou, 2008). Wu and Chiou point out that creativity requires more than formal logical reasoning and argue that it may depend on another stage of thinking, postformal reasoning. Indeed, they suggest that postformal thinking provides both cognitive and affective support for creativity. Commons, Bresette, and Ross (2008) take a more restrictive view of creativity, distinguishing it from originality, but they propose that high levels of creativity as represented by scientific innovation also require postformal thinking.

Postformal reasoning emerged from a movement in the 1970's that expanded upon the Piagetian view on formal thought (Marchand, 2001). As noted by Marchand (2001), many theories were developed (e.g. by Riegel, Sinnott and Kramer) based on the notion that adult thought was distinguished by the ability to accept and integrate a variety to truths that are context-dependent and may even be incompatible. This contrasts with the adolescent's need to arrive at a single final correct answer or truth.

The central, revolutionary belief in this movement was that formal operational thought, which, according to Piaget (1970-72, p.6), "constitutes the essence of the logic of educated adults, as well as the basis of the elementary forms of scientific thought," was not the ultimate stage in cognitive development. In particular, Kramer (1983) proposed that there were three recurrent themes underlying the "postformal operational" models, as they came to be known: "(a) awareness of the relativistic nature of knowledge, (b) acceptance of contradiction, and (c) integration into the dialectical whole" (Kramer, Kahlbaugh, & Goldston, 1992, p. 181). This theorizing by Kramer culminated in her Social Paradigm Belief Inventory (SPBI; Kramer et al., 1992), which categorizes beliefs about the intrapersonal (personality development), interpersonal (personal relationships) and societal (behavior in society general) domains into one of three general forms of thought, or worldviews.

The first worldview is absolute thinking, or formal thinking, which is characterized by a fixed view of the world, dualistic thought patterns (e.g. good vs. bad, true vs. false), and the assumption of causal determinism (Kramer et al., 1992, p. 181). When contradiction arises, it is seen as incorrect and undesirable (Chiou, 2008). This worldview seems to be most prominent in young adolescents (Kahlbaugh & Kramer, 1995). Postformal thinking is divided into two stages. The first postformal stage, and the second of Kramer's three general forms of thought, is relativistic thinking, which was defined from Pepper's (1942) contextualist worldview. According to this mode of thought, knowledge is influenced by context, which is continually changing (Kramer et al., 1992, p.181). The relativistic position is one without any fixed point of reference, where contradiction is an inherent part of understanding, but with no possibility of resolution, because opposite worldviews are seen as irreconcilable. However, it is accepted as inevitable (Chiou, 2008). It is thought to be most prominent in older adolescents or young adults (Kahlbaugh & Kramer, 1995), for example college students (Chiou, 2008).

Relativistic thinking is considered to be a postformal stage, but it is not the most advanced. This occurs with dialectical thinking, which is the second stage of postformal thinking and the third of the three general forms of thought. It represents the culmination of all cognitive development and, according to Kahlbaugh and Kramer (1995), becomes dominant in middle-aged and older adults. According to Kramer et al. (1992), it integrates relativistic thinking and goes beyond it in recognizing that both sides of contradictions are interrelated, thus reflecting an underlying unity. Resolution of conflict thus becomes possible, and leads to temporary stability (called the dialectical whole). The crystallization of the dialectical whole, however, is constantly challenged by the arrival of new challenges. This cycle of change, which moves between tension and resolution, is seen as perpetual, dynamic, and evolving.

Other theorists have also expressed their views on the nature of postformal thought. For example, Kallio and Liitos (2009), in their review of postformal thinking, point out that it involves emotion, social-cognitive development, including development of the self, and even spiritual development. Cartwright, Galupo, Tyree, and Jennings (2009) explain that postformal thinking is a more advanced form of thinking that adds subjective experience, particularly of social and contextual information, to formal reasoning. These ideas have been developed in detail by Sinnott (1998), who argues that beyond formal operational thought there is a maturing process that she terms the "logic of wisdom." This more complex form of thinking is designed to combat alienation and is applied by individuals not only to their work environments but also to their social roles and to their interpersonal relationships (Sinnott, 1998). Rather than seeking some defined end point, adults attempt to achieve a homeostatic balance in a dynamic manner that resembles a dance (Sinnott, 2003). In addition, like Kramer, Sinnot states that post-formal thinking permits the processing of inconsistency. Complexities are understood and paradoxical relationships are accepted (Griffin, Gooding, Semesky, Farmer, Mannchen, & Sinnott (2009). Notably, also like Kramer, Sinnott has developed a scale to measure postformal thinking, the Postformal Thought Scale (Cartwright et al., 2009).

Ideas about postformal thought have also been elaborated and applied to the educational setting, particularly to the training of teachers. According to Kincheloe and Steinberg (1993), the framework for the postformal way of thinking includes seeing the world as a text, connecting logic and emotion, and uncovering how power helps to shape how we represent our world. In particular, Kincheloe, Steinberg and Villaverde (1999) state that their framework assumes that unequal power relations in schools and in society in general undermine democratic life. Given these ideas, it is not surprising that they argue that the goal of postformal thinking is to permit an active struggle for social justice. They also criticize the technocratic perspective that blindly relies on the scientific method and sees learning as a stimulus-response process. Instead, they argue for "nonlinear holism" as a way of thinking that transcends simple ideas of cause and effect. They recommend that teachers concentrate on the why of teaching, not the how, and that both students and teachers embrace conflict as a positive developmental step. Ultimately, cognitive development is an act of emotional commitment leading to political change.

These theorists share the idea that postformal thinking is a more advanced form of thought than formal thinking. Kramer emphasizes the cognitive and interpersonal aspects, particularly how contradiction is dealt with. Sinnott also points how various truths, including paradox, are accepted. Some theorists mention emotion (Kallio & Liitos, Kincheloe & Steinberg), and others include social experience (Cartwright et al., Kallio & Liitos, Sinnott) and application to social change (Kincheloe & Steinberg).

However, Marchand (2001) questions whether postformal thinking should be seen as an additional stage of thought. First, he argues that Piaget's description of the stage of formal operations is considerably more sophisticated than critics realize and actually includes many of the characteristics attributed to postformal thinking. Secondly, he presents Piaget's criteria for the concept of a stage and argues that the descriptions of postformal thinking do not clearly satisfy them, implying that it cannot be regarded as a fifth stage of cognitive development. In addition, he suggests that there are different versions of what postformal thinking means and that research on postformal thinking is inconclusive. Kallio and Liitos (2009) are also skeptical about a fifth stage and cite similar reasons: conceptual difficulties and a lack of empirical evidence. Like Marchand, they recommend that if there is a kind of thinking beyond formal operations, then it should simply be termed "adult cognition" rather than postformal thinking.

Given these varied ideas and criticisms, the third and major purpose of the present study was to provide a new test of the idea of postformal thinking, particularly as described by Kramer, whose conceptualization provides clearly testable hypotheses with a particular scale. As observed above, Kramer et al.'s (1992) analysis indicates that appreciation of contradiction and ambiguity are characteristic of the postformal (relativistic and dialectical) modes of thought. Because it has been argued that metaphor and irony are based on contradiction and ambiguity, it follows that they should be positively related to postformal thought and negatively related to formal thought. The present study was designed to examine this possibility.

As observed earlier, Wu and Chiou (2008) hypothesized that creativity may also be related to postformal reasoning. Relativistic thinking should be a source of novelty, and dialectical thinking, in which contradiction is seen as a source of new ideas, should also encourage creativity. Indeed, they surmised that strict formalistic reasoning, with its insistence on the validity of a single correct answer to a problem, may even act in opposition to creativity. To investigate these ideas with a sample of undergraduate students ("late adolescents", mean age 22 years), they administered Kramer's SPBI to measure stage of cognitive development and the Divergent Thinking Test (DTT) to measure creativity. In this version of the test, participants completed unfinished drawings that were subsequently rated on six aspects of creativity. They examined the relationship between scores on the two tests in two ways. First, they correlated formal scores, relativistic scores and dialectical scores with creativity scores. As predicted, they found positive correlations for relativistic and for dialectical thinking, although the correlations across the six aspects of creativity for dialectical scores were higher (.37 to .44 compared to .12 to .21). In addition, formal thinking scores were negatively correlated with creativity (-.48 to -.63). Second, they classified each participant as a formal (n = 155) or postformal (n = 231) thinker and then compared the two groups on creativity, firstly with a MANOVA across all six aspects of creativity and then with individual comparison at each level. As predicted, they found that postformal thinkers scored higher on all aspects of creativity than formal thinkers. In a more recent study, Yang, Wan and Chiou (2010) adopted a similar procedure. Because they argued that the third stage of postformal thinking developed in "young adulthood", their participants were older than those in the first study (mean age 32 years vs. 22 years), and they only investigated formal thinking and dialectical thinking. However, their results were consistent with those of the first study: dialectical thinking was correlated positively with creativity (.47 to .51), formal thinking was correlated negatively with creativity (-.41 to .51), and dialectical thinkers (n = 190) scored higher than formal (n = 264) thinkers on all six aspects of creativity. Although it was not the primary focus of the present investigation, the relationships between formal thinking, postformal thinking and creativity were also examined here. We predicted that the results of Chiou and colleagues would be replicated.

Summary of Goals and Procedures of the Present Study

In the present study with undergraduate students, we also administered the Social Paradigm Belief Inventory (SPBI) to measure formal and postformal thinking and the Divergent Thinking Test (DTT) to measure creativity. However, because our interest was in verbal metaphor and irony, we used a verbal version of the DTT in which participants generated uses for objects, rather than the incomplete figure version employed by Chiou and colleagues. Hoping to replicate their results, it was predicted that postformal thinking would be positively related to creativity and that formal thinking would be negatively related to creativity.

However, and most importantly, the main purpose of the present study was to extend the previous research on postformal thinking and creativity by adding a test to measure the ability to objectively identify metaphor and irony. Based on the arguments presented above concerning metaphor and irony, and on the results of Chiou and colleagues for creativity, our major prediction was that the ability to identify metaphor and irony would be positively related to postformal thinking and negatively related to formal thinking.

As noted above, it was also speculated that complete sensitivity to metaphor and irony might involve not only identification or understanding but also subjective appreciation and emotional change. Another novel feature of the present study was that it included a scale to measure the subjective appreciation of metaphor and irony. This was added in an attempt to capture the full impact of these two linguistic devices. From previous research, it was tentatively predicted that the appreciation of metaphor and irony, like the ability to identify it, would be positively related to postformal thinking and negatively related to formal thinking. In addition, to investigate emotional change (change in affect), a measure of mood was administered before and after the text containing metaphor and irony. Because any subjective appreciation of metaphor and irony would probably be a positive experience, positive mood change was investigated. In addition, because postformal thought has also been connected to emotion (e.g., Kallio & Liitos, 2009), it was tentatively predicted that the relationships between mood changes on the one hand and postformal thought and formal thought on the other, would follow the same pattern as the corresponding relationships for identification and appreciation of metaphor and irony. That is, positive mood change would be positively related to postformal thinking but would be negatively related to formal thinking.

Therefore, both the subjective appreciation of metaphor and irony and mood change were expected to be related to formal and postformal thinking in the same manner as the ability to identify metaphor and irony. Both of these predictions follow from the assumption that subjective appreciation and mood change would depend directly on the ability to identify metaphor and irony. Consequently, it was also expected that both subjective variables would be positively related to the ability to identify metaphor and irony.

Although not the central purpose of the present study, it was also possible to investigate the relationship between creativity and the ability to identify metaphor and irony. Based on the logical analysis of these two skills, and from the results obtained by Glicksohn et al. (2009), it was expected that they would be positively correlated. Notably, Glicksohn measured creativity (ideational fluency) with the Alternate Uses Test, which is similar to the DTT employed here. However, they measured metaphoric thinking with the Barron Symbolic Equivalence Test, whereas we employed a metaphor and irony test that was constructed for this study.

Finally, as noted above, Kahlbaugh and Kramer (1995) claim that the three worldviews follow a course of development in which they predominate at different ages: formal thinking in early adolescence, relativistic thinking in late adolescence/young adulthood and dialectical thinking in middle to older adulthood. In the study by Wu and Chiou (2008), scores for college students (late adolescents/young adults), which is the population of interest here, scores were slightly higher for formal thinking than for relativistic thinking which were in turn slightly higher than for dialectical thinking. However, when making group comparisons, they combined the relativistic and dialectical scores into a single measure of postformal thinking. In two other studies with a similar age group, scores on the SPBI for relativistic thinking and for dialectical thinking (which together constitute postformal thinking) were higher than for formal thinking, but did not differ from each other (Kahlbaugh & Kramer, 1995; Kramer et al., 1992). This pattern would provide stronger evidence for combining the relativistic and dialectical scores into a single measure. Consequently, in the present study, it was decided to perform all analyses with formal and postformal scores from the SPBI.



Eighty seven undergraduates took part in this study. Unfortunately, gender and age were not recorded. However, from casual observation, the vast majority were between 18 and 23 old, the age range of most university students. Participants were either native Anglophones, or functionally bilingual Francophones. The latter were studying in the English language, which should have permitted them to comprehend the subtlety implied by metaphorical and ironic statements. The volunteers were treated in accordance with the "Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct" (American Psychological Association, 1992).


Metaphor and Irony Test (MIT): Metaphor and Irony Identification (MIT-I) and Subjective Appreciation (MIT-SA). Metaphor and irony comprehension have been assessed by interviews in which a scenario with metaphorical and ironic statements was read to participants (e.g., Happe, 1993; Mo, Su, Chan, & Liu, 2008). After each statement, the participant was asked to explain what the underlying message was. Points were awarded to correct answers.

For the present study, a written scenario based on Happe's (1993) procedure was created (see Appendix). It included 6 instances of metaphor and 6 instances of irony (3 situational and 3 verbal). On a separate page, definitions for metaphor ("an implied comparison between two unlike objects or things where one object is stated to be the other object"), verbal irony ("when a person expresses the opposite of what he or she intends"), and situational irony ("when actual events, or results, are contrary to the desired or intended results"). Participants were instructed to mark metaphors with a green marker and irony with a yellow marker, and to briefly explain in a sentence or two the reason why each instance should be considered metaphor or irony. A point was attributed for each correctly highlighted instance, and a second point for an accurate explanation, giving a maximum of 24 points for the MIT-I score. Four questions assessing subjective appreciation of the text were also asked. On an 8-point scale (1='very little', 8='very much'), participants were instructed to rate the 'humor,' the 'profoundness,' their 'interest' and their general 'liking' of the text, giving a maximum score of 32 and a minimum of 4 for the MIT-SA score.

(DTT Divergent Thinking Test). The DTT (Guilford, 1967; see also Furnham and Bachtiar, 2008) was used to assess creative performance. For each of three objects (brick, towel and pen), participants were given 2 minutes to write down as many functions as they could think of for the object. The total number of uses for all three objects yielded the creativity score.

Social Paradigm Belief Inventory (SPBI). The SPBI (Kramer et al., 1992) consists of 27 items covering everyday reasoning about behaviour in society, personal relationships and personality development, and problem solving (societal, interpersonal and intrapersonal domains). Each item consists of three statements corresponding to formal thinking, relativistic thinking and dialectical thinking. Respondents choose the alternative which best represents their view of the topic, giving a maximum score of 27 for each kind of thinking. Scores are ipsative, because a high score on one kind of thinking necessarily means a lower score on the others. For example, question 8 reads as follows: (a) In a war, both sides have valid points of view. This is because each side sees different aspects of the problem and thus reaches different conclusions; (b) In a war, there is usually a right side and a wrong side. This is because if both sides disagree, logically they couldn't both be right; (c) In a war, both sides contribute to the problem. This is because they belong to the same world and are part of the problems that exist in that world. In this example, the formal statement was 'b', the relativistic 'a', and the dialectical 'c'.

Kramer et al. report split-half reliability coefficients of .60, .83 and .84, for the absolute, relativistic and dialectical scales respectively. These are generally close to the acceptable level of .70 for research purposes (Gregory, 2007). The test-retest reliability coefficient correlation (over a two week interval) was .82, .83 and .78 for the absolute, relativistic and dialectical scales respectively, which correspond to the low end of acceptability (.80) for these reliability coefficients (Gregory, 2007).

To obtain evidence of validity, separate interviews assessed the participants on their style of thinking, based on criteria developed by Kramer and Woodruff (1986) in previous research on adult development. Kramer et al. (1992) found that the correlation of scores obtained in the interview with the scores from the SPBI was .42, which is acceptable as a measure of convergent validity. Other measures of convergent validity were significant and as predicted. Discriminant validity was indicated by nonsignificant correlations between the SPBI and the WAIS Vocabulary Test and between the SPBI and the Crowne and Marlowe scale of social desirability.

Mood assessment. Mood was assessed using an informal test developed by Boire (2009). Using an 8-point scale, participants rated the degree to which they currently felt 9 emotions (happiness, depression, frustration, satisfaction, sadness, anger, irritation, joy, melancholy). Positive mood change (PMC) was defined as a difference in the direction of a positive change in mood (e.g., more happiness, less anger, more joy, less melancholy). Boire (2009) demonstrated that the scale detected theoretically-expected mood changes induced by different kinds of music, providing some evidence of scale validity.


Testing was conducted individually or in small groups. The three main tasks (MIT, SPBI, DTT) were administered to participants in counterbalanced order, taking about 40 minutes. For the MIT, participants completed the initial mood questionnaire, read the metaphor and irony scenario, and then completed the mood questionnaire a second time. Immediately afterwards, they answered the four subjective appreciation questions. Finally, given the definitions of metaphor and irony, they attempted to identify all instances within the scenario, and, on a separate page, to explain for each highlighted instance why it constituted either metaphor or irony.


General Considerations

The SPBI yields three scores (formal, relativistic and dialectic), but the latter two represent different facets of postformal thinking. As noted in the introduction, they were not differentiated here because, for the present age group of students, they were combined (Wu & Chiou, 2008) and also because, in two studies, scores for relativistic thinking and dialectical thinking were higher than for formal thinking, but did not differ from each other (Kahlbaugh & Kramer, 1995; Kramer et al., 1992). Confirming this pattern, the same result was obtained here. A one-way ANOVA on the three scores was significant, F(2, 172) = 112.61, p < .001, and post hoc Tukey tests showed that scores for relativistic thinking (M = 10.84, SD = 3.22) and dialectical thinking (M = 12.02, SD = 3.32) did not differ from each other but were higher than the scores for formal thinking (M = 4.08, SD = 2.65). This pattern of results provides good empirical justification for combining the relativistic and dialectical scores into a single measure of postformal thinking.

Following previous practices (Wu & Chiou, 2008; Yan, Wang & Chiou, 2010), results were analyzed in two ways: with correlations and with group comparisons. First, creativity, formal and postformal scores were correlated with the scores for identification of metaphor and irony, subjective appreciation of metaphor and irony, and positive mood change. Second, each participant was classified as a formal thinker or as a postformal thinker after which the two groups were compared on their scores for creativity, identification of metaphor and irony, subjective appreciation of metaphor and irony, and mood change. Alpha was set at .05 and all tests were two-tailed.

Following Kramer et al.'s (1992) procedure (see also Wu & Chiou, 2008 and Yan, Wang & Chiou, 2010), each participant's raw score on formal thinking was converted into a z-score (by comparing their score to the mean raw score for all participants), and the sum of each participant's relativistic and dialectical raw scores were converted into a z-score. These two z-scores were used to calculate correlations involving formal and postformal thinking respectively. For the purpose of comparing formal and postformal thinkers, each participant was then classified as either a formal thinker (n = 35) or a postformal thinker (n = 52) according to the higher of the two z-scores. The MIT-I score was missing from one person in each group, so that sample sizes were slightly reduced for analyses involving this variable.

Correlational Analyses for Predicted Relationships

First, creativity was positively correlated with metaphor and irony identification (MIT-I), r(df = 81) = .337, p = .002 , but was not significantly correlated with subjective appreciation (MIT-SA), r(83) = .052, p = .638, or positive emotion change (PEC), r(83) = .211, p = .053.

Second, creativity was negatively correlated with formal thinking, r(83) = -.294, p = .006, and positively correlated with postformal thinking, r(83) = .312. p = .004.

Third, and most importantly for the main hypothesis of the present study, formal thinking was negatively correlated with MIT-I, r (83) = .304, p = .005, and with MIT-SA, r(85) = -.236, p = .028, but was not significantly correlated with PEC, r(85) = -.131, p = .228. In contrast, postformal thinking was positively correlated with MIT-I, r(83) = . 324, p = .002, and with MIT-SA, r(85) = .262, p = .014, but was also not significantly correlated with PEC, r(85) = .131, p = .228.

Because creativity was significantly correlated with both MIT-I and both formal and postformal thinking, partial correlations between formal thinking and MIT-I and postformal thinking and MIT-I were calculated with creativity controlled. Both correlations remained significant: r(80) = -.226, p = .042 (formal thinking), and r(80) = .243, p = .02 (postformal thinking), respectively.

Finally, because formal and postformal thinking were highly negatively correlated, r(85) = -.990, p < .001, the relationships between the two kinds of thinking and the three measures for metaphor and irony, with creativity taken into account, were examined with stepwise multiple regression. For metaphor and irony identification, the first model included creativity as a significant predictor, [R.sup.2] = .114, F(1, 81) = 10.38, p = .002. The second model, in which [R.sup.2] = .166, F(2, 82) = 7.96, p = .001, also included creativity but added postformal thinking as a significant predictor, with F(1, 80) = 5.03, p = .028 for the change in [R.sup.2]. For subjective appreciation, only one model was significant, [R.sup.2] = .072, F(1, 85) = 6.43, p = .013. Here, postformal thinking was a significant predictor. For mood change, none of the variables predicted significantly.

Comparing Formal and Postformal Thinkers

Before comparing scores for formal and postformal thinkers on creativity, metaphor and irony identification (MIT-I), metaphor and irony subjective appreciation (MIT-SA), and positive mood change (PEC), the relationships among these four variables were examined.

Three correlations were significant. As already observed, creativity was correlated with MIT-I, r(81) = .337, p = .002. In addition, MIT-I was correlated with PEC, r(83) = .224, p = .039, and MIT-SA was correlated with PMC, r(85) = .337, p = .001. However, the correlation between MIT-I and MIT-SA was not significant, r(83) = -.027, p = .808.

Because it was expected that the difference between formal and postformal thinkers would show the same directional effect for all four dependent variables and because some of these variables were significantly related, they were examined together in a one-way MANOVA with type of thinker as the independent (subject) variable. The overall multivariate effect was significant, F(4, 78) = 2.87, p = .028 (Pillai's trace). Table 1 shows that postformal thinkers scored absolutely higher than formal thinkers on all four dependent variables, with standardized effect sizes ranging from 0.19 to 0.55. However, individual comparisons indicated that there were only two significant effects: for creativity, F(1, 83) = 6.48, p = .013, standardized effect size (Cohen's d) = 0.55, and for MIT-SA, F(1, 83) = 4.44, p = .038 , d = 0.47. As noted above, postformal thinkers scored higher than formal thinkers on creativity and on subjective appreciation of metaphor and irony.

Although these comparisons provide information about which of the four dependent variables contribute to the overall multivariate effect, they do not show which variables have independent effects. To find out, the stepdown procedure has been recommended (Tabachnick & Fidell, 2001). Here, the variables are examined in order of logical importance, and analyses of covariance are conducted with the more important variable entered as covariates (if they are significantly correlated). In addition, Type I error is controlled with the Bonferroni correction procedure.

In the present case, it was reasoned that creativity had priority because differences between formal and postformal thinkers had already been demonstrated (Wu & Chiou, W.-B., 2008; Yang, Wan, & Chiou, W-B., 2010). The next most important variable was metaphor and irony identification because subjective appreciation of metaphor and irony and mood change due to metaphor and irony would logically depend on it. In addition, alpha was set at .013.

Following this procedure, postformal thinkers scored higher than formal thinkers on creativity (see above, p = .013). However, none of the other effects were significant: for MIT-I (with creativity as a covariate), F(1, 80) = 0.50, p = .481 > .013, for MIT-SA, with no covariates, p = .038 > .013 from above, and for PEC, with IMA-I and IMA-SA as covariates, F(1, 82) = 0.039, p = .844 > .013.


It has been proposed that Piaget's theory of cognitive development should be extended beyond the stage of formal operations to include the concept of postformal thinking. Although various theoretical accounts have been offered and tests have been constructed to measure postformal thinking, the concept has been criticized, particularly because of insufficient research evidence (Kallio & Liitos, 2009; Marchand, 2001). The major purpose of the present study was to provide an empirical evaluation of Kramer's theory of postformal reasoning by replicating and extending previous work in which postformal thinking was related to creativity (Wu & Chiou, 2008; Yang, Wan & Chiou, 2010). It was expected that creativity would be positively predicted by postformal thinking but negatively predicted by formal thinking. The novel idea in the present research was to relate postformal thinking to the ability to identify and appreciate metaphor and irony and perhaps also to the resulting emotional change. We also hoped to demonstrate the link between creativity and metaphor and irony identification that was reported by Glicksohn et al. (2009). Positive results would support the idea that the linguistic devices of metaphor and irony share common elements with creativity and postformal reasoning.

First, from the correlation and regression analyses, there was a significant positive relationship between creativity and the ability to identify metaphor and irony. This replicates the results of Glicksohn et al. (2009) with a similar test of creativity that involved generating uses for objects, but with a different test of metaphoric thinking (the SBIT here and the BSET by Glicksohn et al.). This supports the analysis in which both creativity and the use of metaphor and irony require cognitive flexibility and imagination (Glicksohn et al., 2009). Notably, this relationship did not extend to the subjective appreciation of metaphor and irony or to emotional change. For emotional change, although scores were positively correlated with scores for the identification and subjective appreciation of metaphor and irony, they were not correlated with creativity scores. In retrospect, this may not be surprising because the two subjective experiences were closely tied to the text containing metaphor and irony and were therefore probably specific to that text.

Second, the previous relationships between types of thinking and creativity (Wu & Chiou, 2008;Yang, Wan & Chiou, 2010) were successfully replicated. Creativity scores were positively correlated with postformal thinking scores and negatively with formal thinking scores, and people classified as postformal thinkers scored higher on creativity than people classified as formal thinkers. It appears that being more of a formal thinker, where closed, correct solutions to problems are preferred and contradictions are seen as undesirable, inhibits the open-mindedness that is necessary to generate novel responses. On the other hand, being more of a postformal thinker, where ambiguity and contradiction are tolerated, encourages the generation of novel responses.

Third, and turning to the major goal of the present study, some predictions were supported and some were not. In the correlational analysis, where the full range of scores on the variables was taken into account, the ability to identify metaphor and irony was positively related to postformal thinking and negatively related to formal thinking. Similarly, the subjective appreciation of metaphor and irony was also positively related to postformal thinking and negatively related to formal thinking. Both of these sets of results support the hypotheses linking postformal thinking to the identification and appreciation of metaphor and irony. On the other hand, neither postformal nor formal thinking were significantly related to positive mood change. The interpretation of these correlations was sharpened by the stepdown regression analysis which showed that postformal thinking was added to creativity as an independent predictor of the identification of metaphor and irony and that postformal thinking but not creativity predicted the subjective appreciation of metaphor and irony. This indicates that a higher level of postformal reasoning permits the full impact of metaphor and irony to be experienced.

When people were classified as formal or postformal thinkers, there were more people in the second group, which is the same pattern found by Wu and Chiou (2008) in participants from the same population (undergraduates). In addition, there was a general multivariate effect in which postformal thinkers scored higher over all variables (creativity, identification and subjective appreciation of metaphor and irony and positive change in mood). The mean differences on each variable were all in the same direction, indicating that each of them contributed to the overall effect. This result is broadly consistent with the correlational analysis and supports the general hypothesis that postformal thinking would be related to objective and subjective indices of metaphor and irony.

However, univariate analyses showed that this effect was only significant for creativity (as noted above) and for the subjective appreciation of metaphor and irony. Taking a more conservative approach where the goal is to identify completely independent effects, none of the metaphor and irony differences between formal and informal thinkers were significant. Here, there was a methodological difference between the correlational and categorical variable analyses, which perhaps deserves further investigation in its own right. For example, a person was classified as a formal thinker or a postformal thinker on the basis of the higher of the two z-scores. Although this includes all participants in the data analysis, it meant that, in some cases, these scores were fairly similar, which weakens the separation of the groups into two clearly distinct categories. The absence of a difference in the ability to identify metaphor and irony between formal and postformal thinkers may also represent another challenge to the notion that postformal thinking is a clear stage of cognitive development in which people have or have not attained it (cf. Marchand, 2001).

One anomaly in the present correlational results was that although both formal and postformal thinking were related as expected to the ability to identify metaphor and irony and to the subjective appreciation of it, the correlation between identification and appreciation was not significant. This was surprising because it was argued that subjective appreciation or metaphor and irony depended on its being detected. From this, it was assumed that better detection would have been associated with more appreciation.

On the other hand, as expected, positive mood change was related to the ability to identify metaphor and irony and to the subjective appreciation of it. This is consistent with the argument that the full impact of metaphor and irony may involve emotional change. However, both the correlational analysis and the categorical analyses with the post hoc individual and stepdown comparisons showed that the relationship between postformal thinking and positive mood change was not significant. This weakens the argument that postformal thinking includes emotional effects. At the same time, it should be noted that Kramer's model of postformal thinking does not emphasize this element, and it does not appear explicitly in her post formal thinking scale (SPBI). Consequently, all of the present results for postformal thinking, metaphor and irony identification and appreciation and mood change can be accommodated by her model and perhaps serve to distinguish it from other approaches that do include emotion in their accounts of posformal thinking (see Kallio & Liitos, 2009; Kincheloe & Steinberg, 1993). As noted above, the present results may not fully support the idea of a fifth stage of cognitive development, but they are consistent with the characteristics of postformal reasoning as outlined by Kramer, most specificially because the SPBI was employed to measure postformal thinking. One way of investigating further the various conceptions of postformal thinking would be to replicate the present study using Sinnott's Postformal Thought Scale instead of Kramer's SPBI. From Sinnott's conception of postformal thinking (e.g., Griffin et al., 2009), it would also be predicted that scores on her scale should predict both the identification and subjective appreciation of metaphor and irony. If the major effects relating formal and postformal thinking to metaphor and irony identification and appreciation were replicated, this would provide evidence for Sinnott's conception of postformal reasoning. Notably, however, the items on her scale (Cartwright et al., 2009) do not contain any reference to emotion, which perhaps implies that the same zero-order relationships with mood change might be obtained.

The present study had some strengths and weaknesses. In terms of theory, the extension of postformal research from creativity to the processing of metaphor and irony is novel. In terms of methodology, care was taken to obtain the judgments of metaphor and irony at the end of the experiment so that they would not contaminate the subjective judgments of appreciation and the reports of mood. Creativity was measured by the Divergent Thinking Test, which is a classic test devised by Guilford (1967) and similar to a figural counterpart employed in the previous studies of postformal thinking and creativity (Wu & Chiou, 2008;Yang, Wan & Chiou, 2010). However, it might be also be interesting to measure creativity with the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking (Torrance, 1972), which taps semantic or symbolic creativity that might relate more closely to the identification of irony and metaphor.

On the negative side, the lack of demographic information was an oversight that prevented any consideration of gender or age differences. However, most of the participants were probably in the typical age range for university undergraduates, and the scores for relativistic thinking and dialectical thinking were similar and greater than those for absolute thinking. This was similar to the results obtained in two previous studies (Kahlbaugh & Kramer, 1995; Kramer et al., 1992) and justified the grouping of the first two groups as postformal thinkers. Given claims that postformal thinking, particularly dialectical thinking, develops most fully in (Chiou, 2008; Kahlbaugh & Kramer, 1995; Yang, Wan and Chiou, 2010), it might be interesting to repeat this study with older people who were not students. In addition, although all participants understood English, those of them for whom it was not their mother tongue may have been at a disadvantage for identifying metaphor and irony. In the future, it might be wise to screen for English fluency. Finally, although the measure of mood had been used in a previous study with promising results (Boire, 2009), it was not a standardized instrument. Future research on emotional change and postformal thought should rectify this, and perhaps also explore other ways of classifying people to more clearly distinguish formal and postformal thinkers.

In summary, social relationships depend on communication, but for the message to have maximum impact, it may have to be conveyed indirectly. This can be accomplished using metaphor and irony. The major result of the present study is that the ability to identify and appreciate metaphor and irony is significantly related to postformal thinking. This indicates that, to comprehend and experience the subtlety and nuance implied by ambiguity and contradiction, a person requires skills beyond standard logical reasoning. In addition, previous demonstrations of relationships between postformal thinking and creativity and between creativity and the ability to identify metaphor and irony were confirmed. Perhaps schools can promote creative thinking and the processing of nonliteral language by encouraging the development of postformal reasoning.

Appendix (Irony and Metaphor Scenario)

Jonathan and Emily are lying on the ground, in a prairie, watching the stars; this is their second date together...

Emily: "What brew are you stirring (Metaphor), Jo?"

Jonathan: "... Have you ever thought about how strange it is that the one thing which we are most afraid of is the one thing which we will all inevitably encounter ... (Irony)"

E: "And what might that be?"

J: "Death itself."

E: "Wow, I really thought we were beyond the 'small talk' stage, but I guess we're going to have to go back to boring old, shallow conversations ... (I)"

J: "No but seriously Em, aren't we all ostriches with our heads in the sand (M)?"

E: "Well, I think you might have a point there Jo, if only ostriches actually did put their heads in the sand ... (I)"

J: "Em, you're a royal class jester (M), you know that?"

E: "It's funny you should say that, because I saw a painting once, by Jan Matejko, portraying the most famous jester in Polish history. He's sitting in a chair at a royal ball, in all his joker attire, and he's the only one concerned with the news that the Russians have just captured one of their important cities ... (I)"

J: "I see ... So beneath your fool's attire (M), you're hiding deep concerns?" Jonathan and Emily laugh their hearts out (M), until silence gradually settles in again.

E: "Seriously Jo, I think you're right--we are pretending that it isn't there, the bearer of the dark scythe (M), waiting for us all ... But that's precisely because we are terribly frightened by it!"

J: "But that's exactly my point, Em! Why be afraid, and avoid the subject of something which is bound to happen?"

E: "... Maybe because watching the stars is just so much more fun!..(I)."

End of Dialogue


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Philippe S. Blouin and Stuart J. McKelvie

Bishop's University

Author info: Correspondence should be sent to: Dr. Stuart McKelvie, Psychology Department, Bishop's University, 2600 College St., Sherbrooke, Quebec J1M 1Z7, Canada.
TABLE 1 Comparison of Scores for Formal and Postformal Thinkers

                   n           Mean          SD       Cohen's d

  Formal           34         14.85         7.34         0.55
  Postformal       51         18.45         5.28
Metaphor and Irony Test--Identification (MIT-I)
  Formal           34          8.35         5.17         0.33
  Postformal       51         10.04         4.93
Metaphor and Irony Test--Subjective Appreciation (MIT-SA)
  Formal           35         15.03         5.78         0.47
  Postformal       52         17.27         5.74
Positive Mood Change (PMC)
  Formal           35         -1.00         5.10         0.19
  Postformal       52          0.04         5.95
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