One Among Many

The self in social context

Creativity From the Deep

The repressed returns—in a good way.

sublime
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Eternal punishment!

Title of sermon announced on billboard next to a Baptist church

Creativity is highly valued in most cultures and prized by most psychologists who study it. Maslow (1968) puts creativity at the top of his psychic pyramid, within the need for self-actualization. Not a need itself, creativity is a capacity, and if released, it is a process, resulting in valued products, ideas, or other outcomes. People also value happiness, wealth, security, attachment, but these are about consumption. Creativity is about action and, well, creation. When there is creativity, something new, something better, something more valuable comes along. It is difficult to argue that happiness, wealth, security, or attachment can come to full flower without someone being creative somewhere. Conversely, it is not clear that creativity requires happiness, wealth, security, or attachment. Indeed, the lack in these departments may draw forth reserves of creativity.

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Homo sapiens is the quintessentially creative homo. Other mammalian species and early hominids got and get by with instinct and simple rules of learning. Modern humans are biologically fragile (no teeth or claws to impress prey or predators), but they have big brains. Creativity makes up for the weakness of the body. When scientists and other humans ask why or how homo sapiens has taken mastery of the planet (for the time being), they tend to look to intelligence. But as the old quip goes, intelligence is what intelligence tests measures, and that ain’t creativity. It is convergent thinking. It is the ability to do math, rotate figures in imaginary space, remember culturally shared knowledge, name syno- and antonyms, and do so quickly. Convergent intelligence is the intelligence of the well-adjusted person.

Intelligence (by itself) would not have invented the wheel, painted mammoths at Lascaux, or figured out that e equals em times ce square. Playful experimentation, tolerance for the seemingly absurd, and persistence were required: in other words, creativity.

As the pace of technological and economical change accelerates, calls for greater creativity are getting louder. People (and companies) want to know what they can do to become more creative. Everyone wants to be an innovator. In The pursuit of creativity, I gave a few pointers on how to do it. With that, I struck an optimistic note, along the lines of those who say that everyone as creative potential. The challenge is to access, release, and nurture it.

But that is not all. Consider talent. Some individuals may have more creative potential than others, in a hereditary genius sort of way. This notion is mildly threatening, but if we accept individual differences in ordinary intelligence, why not do the same for creativity? But what if creative advantage comes from sources that are not entirely appealing, such as a Machiavellian personality or subclinical psychopathology? We wouldn’t want that, would we?

And then there’s religion. Might some religions predispose their adherents for creativity, and if they do, might they do it through psychologically dubious pathways? In an excellent paper, Kim, Zeppenfeld & Cohen (2013), argue that Protestants, and particularly those of the Calvinist stripe, are more likely than Catholics or Jews to channel distressing emotions into creative production.

Kim et al. begin with Max Weber’s famous thesis that the Protestant (Calvinist) doctrines of human depravity and divine predestination provide a fertile ground for an ethic of hard work and frugality. In contrast to Jews and Catholics (and many others), Protestants are not free to assume that their good deeds will get them into heaven. If, however, they are met with material success, their good deeds signal that the good lord has already decided to have merci on them. God’s will is the common cause of the Protestants’ fate on earth and thereafter. Interestingly, the doctrine of predestination has turned out to be a stronger motivator than the doctrine that earthly and post-earthly outcomes are partly controllable.

If Weber’s analysis reveals the motivating power of religion, it does not speak directly to creativity. Here, Kim et al. turn to Freud’s theory of sublimation. Freud held that the most threatening sexual and aggressive impulses are repressed. Yet, their energy is not lost. The properly educated manage to channel this energy into cultural production (e.g., by publishing massively on mind matters). In lesser souls the same energy re-emerges as neurotic symptoms (about which the former might create fanciful theories).

Putting Weber and Freud together—in a highly creative move—Kim et al. predict that those Protestants who are troubled by sexual taboos are more creative than untroubled Protestants or Jews and Catholics regardless of their state of trouble. Using data from a longitudinal study, they find supporting evidence. Sexually anxious Protestants scored highest in a variety of domains of creative achievement (arts & sciences, engineering).

In 2 experimental studies, Kim et al. show that they can produce the effect in the laboratory. Consider a few key results. In the critical conditions of the first experiment, Kim et al. showed photos of an attractive, scantily clad woman and asked participants to think of her as their sister. They also did a lexical decision task with words related to damnation and depravity. Then, participants completed creative production tasks by sculpting balls of clay and writing poetry. As predicted, threatened Protestants did better than threatened Jews or Catholics or unthreatened participants of any group. In the second experiment, Kim et al. turned from sex to aggression to cover all Freudian bases. They asked participants to recall an episode that made them angry and then to suppress that anger—a task known to be difficult. Again, they found that the suppressing Protestants were more creative in their subsequent production efforts than all other groups.

The authors note that theirs may the first experimental demonstration of the process of sublimation. What is more, their work is highly creative itself, bringing together Weber, Freud, individual and cultural differences, and experimental methods with astonishing results.

In my view, this work is significant, among other things, because it shows that something that is highly valued, like creativity, can come from a dark place. It has been known for a while that creativity can be abused for mean ends; now we know that creativity can arise from mental conflict and suffering. No matter how wonderful a concept may be overall, there is always room for some ambivalence.

Kim, E., Zeppenfeld, V., & Cohen, D. (2013). Sublimation, culture, and creativity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 105, 639-666.

Maslow, A. (1968). Creativity in self-actualizing people. In: The Maslow business reader, pp. 21-30. 

Joachim Krueger, Ph.D., is a social psychologist at Brown University who believes that rational thinking and socially responsible behavior are attainable goals.

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