SCIENCE
08/06/2013 09:32 am ET Updated Aug 06, 2013

Protestants More Creative Than Catholics, Jews? Say It Ain't So

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Are Protestants more creative than Catholics and Jews? The internet has been abuzz with reports about a new study purporting to say just that, but the University of Illinois scientists behind the study say their research has been grossly misrepresented.

“We are not saying Protestants are more creative than Catholics or Jews are," study co-author Dr. Dov Cohen, told The Huffington Post in an email. "This is sensationalist and wrong. We did not say this and do not believe it."

So what did the study actually show? That unlike Catholics and Jews, Protestants demonstrate greater creativity when forced to grapple with difficult emotions or with taboo thoughts like incest.

For one part of the study, Cohen and his team had Protestant, Catholic and Jewish men look at an image of a woman -- either a sexy swimsuit model (Michelle Vawer), or a plain-looking woman -- and write about her as if they had known her a long time. The researchers asked some of the men in each group to think of the woman as a sister, the rest to think of her as a girlfriend.

Then all the men were given seven minutes to sculpt something from a ball of clay and five minutes to write a poem. The sculpture and poems were then rated for creativity on a five-point scale by professional artists.

What happened? The Protestant men with taboo thoughts -- those who looked at the sexy image and imagined the woman as their sister -- were judged as more creative than the other Protestants. Curiously, the image of the sexy woman had no effect on the creativity of Catholics and Jews.

Why might this strange creativity boost happen only for Protestants?

"Bad thoughts are likely more threatening to Protestant participants, as compared to Catholic and Jewish participants," Dr. Cohen told The Huffington Post in an email. "Thoughts have a moral status in Protestantism that they do not have in, say, Judaism. This is likely to make a person more prone to pushing these thoughts out of consciousness. The subconscious mind can then take over and work on them."

While Protestants might channel their uncomfortable sexual desire into work (in this case artwork), Catholics and Jews might be more likely to "reflect on the emotion and feel bad about having such a horrible thought or impulse," Dr. Cohen said. Catholics and Jews might be more likely to do something about the feeling -- like confess it, do penance, or reconcile with another person, according to Dr. Cohen.

The research will be published in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

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