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Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Ph.D. Headshot

Does Creativity Have a Dark Side?

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One of the oldest debates in psychology concerns the relationship between creativity and mental illness. Although the popular stereotype of the mad creative genius is based more on Hollywood movies than scientific research, there is indeed some evidence for the counterproductive or undesirable features associated with creativity, regardless of the fact that creative talent is rewarded in every society, and rightly so.

Given that even experts are still trying to figure out how best to define creativity and mental illness -- for instance, diagnostic categories for major psychiatric disorders have changed substantially over the past 50 years, and no algorithm can accurately predict the future value of artistic products, such as books, paintings and songs -- it is easy to understand the confusion surrounding this topic. Furthermore, despite the wealth of studies carried out to identify the key personality characteristics associated with higher levels of creative potential, academic findings are always overshadowed by popular beliefs -- data tell, but stories sell.

In an attempt to provide a simple answer to the title of this blog post, let us define creativity as the ability to generate ideas that are both novel and useful -- a common psychological definition, which can be applied to any discipline, profession, artistic and scientific domains. As for the dark side, it refers to socially undesirable or problematic aspects of personality, that is, behaviors that disrupt our relationships, career, or health. For example, some people are naturally more volatile, argumentative, or manipulative than others. Although these traits can be adaptive -- in the short run, they can help us intimidate and outperform our competitors -- they also carry the seeds of derailment -- in the long run, they make us less likeable and rewarding to deal with, as well as hurting others. Importantly, everybody has a dark side and the same personality attribute may be desirable in some instances (and to some people) but not others. It is also noteworthy that dark-side tendencies are not set in stone. We all have the potential to inhibit these toxic behaviors, though it requires a great deal of self-awareness and dedication -- bad habits are hard to break, especially when you are unaware of them.

Scientific studies tend to rely on probabilities; they identify statistical patterns or co-variations, which they then try to replicate and explain. Elaborate explanations turn into theories, which can then be validated via accurate predictions, and refuted if predictions fail. Because human behavior is complex -- just think about all the possible factors that could play a role in determining what you will be doing this time next week -- predictions are far from perfect. However, the statistical patterns identified in typical psychological studies are at least as robust as those reported in medical or economic studies. For example, valid creativity tests predict creative achievements as well as Viagra consumption predicts enhanced sexual performance: approximately 20 percent better than chance.

Researchers have applied the same logic (and methodology) to assess the overlap between creative potential and problematic personality characteristics. Hundreds of independent studies have now been conducted, using large samples that are representative of the overall population of normal or healthy (non-clinical) adults. This approach provides a much more direct and generalizable insight into the relationship between creativity and dark-side traits than the in-depth study of a few unrepresentative geniuses (e.g., Van Gogh, Hemingway, and Virginia Woolf). For a detailed and masterful discussion of the topic, read this.

So, what do the data suggest? Do certain dark-side characteristic increase with creative potential? The short answer is yes, though only marginally so. To be more specific, the ability to produce innovative ideas is found in greater proportion in people who are somewhat moody, eccentric, and antisocial (or, if you prefer euphemism, rebellious). If you think about it, this makes perfect sense: Creativity involves disrupting the status quo and doing things in unusual ways. If you are happy with the existing order of things, you will have no incentive to change. And if you see things like everyone else does, you will probably not be creative. Recent research has also shown that creativity increases a person's likelihood to cheat -- the more creative you are, the more able you are to fool not just others, but also yourself. As Nietzsche famously noted, you have to be quite smart and ingenious to be able to lie all the time; it requires imagination as well as great memory, so you avoid contradictions.

There is arguably no simpler demonstration for the dark side of creativity than humor. Regardless of whether it's manifested in the form of elaborate or spontaneous jokes, humor reflects our attempt to express inappropriate thoughts or feelings, a sort of creative unleashing of our dark side. In line, Freud saw humor as a defense mechanism, a coping strategy whereby unacceptable impulses are deliberately transformed -- or sublimated -- into socially-acceptable ideas or behaviors. Unsurprisingly, we refer to people as "funny" when they are entertaining or weird -- and it is probably impossible to be entertaining to some without being weird to others.

For a fabulous collection of crowd-sourced digital human weirdness (and creativity) check out this site. You may even have something to contribute to it, unless you are too ashamed of your dark side or, even worse, have none.

For more by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Ph.D., click here.

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