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Creatives share traits with psychopaths

Bold, sexually appealing, risk-taking, arrogant... are you a psychopath or just creative?
Creatives share traits with psychopaths

Image: pexels.com

Bold, sexually appealing, risk-taking, arrogant, dishonest, uninhibited, hostile – if you think such traits describe a psychopath you are right, but what may come as a surprise is how they also correlate to creatives.

‘The creative personality, it turns out, might be equal parts genius and deviant,’ said psychologists at De La Salle University in Manila.

A study has found a substantial link between creativity and socially undesirable personality traits displayed in psychopaths and also in artists, musicians, visual artists, writers, dancers, actors, comedians and inventors.

Through a series of three tests, the research builds on findings from trait investigations from the last 50 years that propose the ‘trickster is alive and well in contemporary culture’.

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The study found key characteristics in common included rule-breaking, boldness and a tendency to dishonesty.

The psychopath – sometimes more kindly called the trickster – is commonly associated with superficial charm, grandiose sense of self-worth, pathological lying, manipulative behaviour, lack of remorse and empathy and an unwillingness to accept responsibility for actions.

Creatives tend to have the same basic personality traits, but tend to possess more pro-social characteristics, rather than the destructive behaviours often associated with psychopaths.

‘Even as we allude to the psychopath, we do not intend to celebrate the destructiveness of human nature, at least not for its own sake. Instead, as we show, antisocial behaviours of the kind associated with psychopathic meanness and disinhibition do not seem essential to the creative personality. Instead, they just happen to coincide with it,’ explained researchers.

Rule-breaking and dishonesty

Both artists and psychopaths care little for social rules and may be more inclined to live in a world they imagine than in any objective reality. One result identified by the researchers is a tendency in both psychopaths and artists towards social rule-breaking which they framed as dishonesty.

Such rule-breaking can make people difficult but it also encourages creative or divergent thinking. Thinking up a lie requires more creativity than telling the truth and imaging how the world could be enables artists to think of new ways of portraying the world we have. The study cites the insights of cubism as an example.

Perhaps disturbingly, previous studies have found you can foster creativity if you encourage dishonesty or rule-breaking.

Risk-taking

Both psychopaths and artists tend to lack emotional inhibition, meaning they not only eschew socially acceptable norms but also take risks that others would avoid.

Whether those risks are creative strides or callous antisocial behaviour leads to differing results but both stem from a similar impulse.

Emotional disinhibition corresponds to fearlessness and self-enhancing tendencies – which are essential for artists.

For the creative, fearlessness is one of the ingredients that enables creative thinking and the ability for artists to challenge and inspire.

Read: Disturbing not pleasing, should be art’s role

Bold but not mean

The study also investigated the correlation between creative achievement and psychopathic traits such as boldness, meanness and inhibition.

Only boldness, or the tendency to be less vulnerable to fear or stress, correlated directly to creativity.

‘It might reinforce the previous observation that it is psychopathic boldness that is most strongly associated with creativity in contrast to other dimensions of psychopathy.'

However the researchers argued that while creativity did not require disinhibition in other aspects of life, it did require emotional disinhibition.

‘We argue that emotional disinhibition, in the form of psychopathic boldness, is actually integral to some creative personalities, and functionally related to the creative process.’

The double standard

If artists and creatives do share traits with psychopaths, the study points to a possible double standard when it comes to male and female artists.

‘There may be far more tolerance (and maybe even celebration) of the unruly, chaotic, and misbehaving genius as long as they are male, but once we cross the gender gap, the psychopathically disinhibited female artist or scientist may face a wall of censure totally unrelated to their merit as creators,’ the researchers continued.

‘The pronounced tendency for male delinquents to be valorized as courageous rebels, while female misbehavior is both trivialized and subjected to greater social control.’

Nature or nurture?

The researchers question whether the ‘psychopathic’ traits are a necessary function of the creative mind or a result of working in a competitive field such as the arts.

‘The socially undesirable attributes involved might be more than just adopted postures, either as a strategy for a competitive field, or as a reaction to creative success.’

In a sense, such traits choose you. ‘Generally then, a creative field might not just shape a person into amore arrogant or dishonest personality, it might be actively selecting them, not for the sake of having disagreeable traits, but because such traits meaningfully co-vary with creativity itself.’

Creativity is nuanced

The study admits to uncertainties, with such results treated with degree of caution. ‘At the very least it might motivate more nuanced investigation regarding creative achievement.’

There link between creativity and mental illness should not be oversimplified.

‘There is no disguising the fact that our work effectively adds psychopathy to a long history of using either depression, bipolar disorder, autism, schizophrenia and, more recently, Parkinson's disease, as pathological models for the study of creativity.

‘We believe that in doing so, we are not flouting Occam's razor and simply heaping more rubbish onto an already unsteady pile. We would like to think that we are pointing out that the work done in each of these different areas need not be considered in isolation.’

Not essential, but aligning to creativity

Dark personality traits are not essential to creativity, but rather they may coincide with it. Ultimately researchers hope the findings can help improve creativity in the future by fostering pro-social traits and discouraging others.

‘If the model proves useful going forward, it might be the cultivation of forms of boldness, while seeking to mitigate the more harmful forms of disinhibition, which would be the key to fostering creativity in both educational and professional settings.

‘It could turn out that the price of human discovery, whether we like it or not, is to give the Trickster more credit,’ concluded the study.

Madeleine Dore

Friday 29 April, 2016

About the author

Madeleine Dore is a freelance writer and founder of Extraordinary Routines, an interview project exploring the intersection between creativity and imperfection. She is the previous Deputy Editor at ArtsHub. Follow her on Twitter at @RoutineCurator