The Dark Side of Creativity

“One must have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.”

Nietzsche

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Few psychological traits are as desirable as creativity — the ability to come up with ideas that are both novel and useful. Yet it is also true that creativity has been associated with a wide range of counterproductive, rarely discussed qualities. Being aware of these tendencies is important for anyone trying to better understand their own creativity, or that of other people.

First, research has established a link between creativity and negative moods. You don’t have to be depressed to be creative — and it’s important to note that crippling depression is more destructive than generative — but it is true that there is some empirical backing for the stereotype that artists tend to be depressive or suffer from mood swings. As Nietzsche once noted: “One must have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.” On average, people who are very emotionally stable may be too happy to feel the need to create. After all, if the status quo is fine, why change it?

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Second, the very thinking patterns that define the creative process and help lead to original thinking can have a maladaptive side. For example, creativity requires the inability to suppress irrelevant thoughts and inappropriate ideas. And creative thinkers also tend to have poorer impulse-control.

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More recently, creativity has also been associated with dishonesty, presumably because it enables individuals to creatively distort reality. That is not to say that creative people are necessarily unethical. Rather, their lower tolerance for boredom and conventionality, and their more vivid imaginations, equip them with more sophisticated mental tools to both self-deceive and deceive others.

It should be noted that this ability can often be deployed in the service of others. Outstanding entrepreneurs may be able to use such skills to convince others of their vision. (Remember Steve Jobs’s famous “reality distortion field”?) Perhaps entrepreneurial talent requires a certain ability to see something that isn’t there — something for which there’s no evidence yet — and turn it into a compelling vision, as well as products and services, for others.

Research has also found that creative individuals are often more narcissistic, and that narcissism can actually boost creative achievements. This makes intuitive sense. Narcissistic people are focused on themselves, and naturally spend more time focused on developing their own ideas and less time worrying about pleasing other people. However, it’s important to note that narcissists tend to think that they are more creative than they actually are, and most people are unable to evaluate creativity accurately — so it could also be that observers are just more easily deceived by individuals who seem more confident and enthusiastic about their own ideas. In line, research shows that even when narcissistic individuals are not more creative, they are better able to sell their ideas to others, creating, in effect, a self-fulfilling prophecy. (This is consistent with the finding that narcissism often correlates with leadership, including when leaders are visionary or entrepreneurial.)

Even seemingly desirable creative qualities often present more problems than opportunities for the person who incarnates them. For example, take nonconformity – a necessary prerequisite of creativity. We may idolize rebels in popular culture, but in daily life we pressure these disruptive misfits to get with the program. Likewise, although the idea of embracing risk and tolerating failure seems cool and sexy, the natural human tendency is to preserve the status quo and make our environments as predictable and familiar as possible. Truly creative people are therefore often perceived as a threat.

Of course, the bright side of creativity tends to eclipse its dark side. At the individual level, creativity has been linked to a wide range of positive emotions, such as flow, engagement, and subjective wellbeing. When people are assigned to meaningful jobs and given autonomy over their work, they will unleash their creativity and enjoy all its benefits. At the team level, coordinated group behavior and interpersonal synergies turn creativity into actual innovation, the practical side of creativity. And at the organizational and societal levels, creativity provides the seeds of change and progress. Without creativity, we would be still living in the dark ages.

But if creativity were as uniformly desirable and attractive as most writings on the subject suggest, it would happen more often, and without adverse consequences for creative minds. Too many of us simply want to “boost our creativity” without acknowledging the dark places it often comes from — or the challenging places it may take us. The reality is that creativity is both taxing and complicated.


Source: HBR +

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is the CEO of Hogan Assessment Systems, a Professor of Business Psychology at University College London, and a faculty member at Columbia University.


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