[R05] The dark side of creativity?


Creativity is a high-valued trait. Education is supposed to help students become more creative and better at solving problems. Businesses are willing to pay a high premium to hire creative individuals. But is there a dark side to creativity?

Empirical research indicates that there are statisical links between creativity and personality traits such as introversion, emotional sensitivity, openness to new experience, and impulsivity. In more extreme cases, creativity is often present together with emotional disorders, especially in the area of creative arts. (See Akinola and Mendes (2008) "The Dark Side of Creativity: Biological Vulnerability and Negative Emotions Lead to Greater Artistic Creativity” Pers Soc Psychol Bull 34(12):1677-1686.)

Along a similar theme, in his famous book Creating Minds, Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner reviewed the lives of famous creative people such as Einstein, Freud, and Picasso. He claimed that a commonality among his subjects is that they all seem to be involved in some kind of a Faustian bargain, having to make a big sacrifice in some area in order to engage in their creative pursuits:

…the creators became embedded in some kind of a bargain, deal, or Faustian arrangement, executed as a means of ensuring the preservation of his or her unusual gifts. In general, the creators were so caught up in the pursuit of their work mission that they sacrificed all, especially the possibility of a rounded personal existence… unless this bargain has been compulsively adhered to, the talent may be compromised or even irretrievably lost. And, indeed, at times when the bargain is relaxed, there may well be negative consequences for the individual’s creative output.

More recently, Professor of business administration Francesca Gino and behavioral economist Dan Ariely have done experiments linking creativity with dishonesty. It was found that people with creative personalities tend to be more dishonest and more willing to cheat. In fact, in one experiment creativity turns out to be a better predictor of unethical behaviour than intelligence! (Gino and Ariely (2012) "The dark side of creativity: original thinkers can be more dishonest". J Pers Soc Psychol 102(3):445-59.)

Creativity that leads to success is often achieved as a result of very focused work over a long period of time. This would usually imply making significant sacrifices in other areas. In addition, perhaps it takes a certain kind of personality to be able to sustain that level of intense devotion to a project. Stubbornness and grit enable us to persist through failures and stick to our goals, and a willingness to break existing rules and be different underlies the courage to explore new territories. There is a lot more research that can be done on the connections between creativity, personality, and other psychological factors. But it should be clear that becoming a creative person is not just a matter of learning some rules of thinking. There are lots of other psychological factors involved.

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