The Human Beast

Why we do what we do

The Secret of Creativity: An Oblique Perspective

Why immigrants and gays are so creative.

Creative people are complex, meaning that they see the world from multiple perspectives. This is an adaptive response to complex inputs during childhood. We are all constantly trying to make sense of the world we live in and the more complex our experiences, the more challenging this proves to be. This challenge is the key to creativity.

Biographically speaking, creative people have a foot in two camps. In the U.S., for example, immigrants are seven times more likely to excel in creative fields compared to individuals whose families have lived here for generations (1).

Creative people also tend to have a foot in either gender camp. Many highly creative people are androgynous (masculine women or feminine men). Individuals who score high on tests of creativity are more likely to be androgynous as assessed by the Bem sex roles inventory, meaning that they score high both on masculinity and on femininity scales (2). Androgynous individuals may be heterosexual or homosexual.

Sexual orientation is itself a factor in creativity with homosexuals (male and female) being over represented in most creative endeavors. Cities in the U.S. with a high proportion of gay residents, as inferred from Census data on living arrangements also have a large proportion of residents working in creative industries such as research, publishing, design, music, film, television, advertising, fashion, theatre, and so forth (3). Presumably gay people are attracted by creative opportunities but it is also possible that the tolerance and openness of highly creative cities is particularly welcoming to homosexuals.

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Being an immigrant, being androgynous, or being gay, are all dimensions of otherness, of not quite fitting in with mainstream social categories. Just as people from different countries perceive social interactions differently, so males see the world from a different perspective than women do and these gender filters are a complex amalgam of biology and social amplification.

Whereas the strongly gender-typed individual sees the world through a single filter, the androgynous individual can perceive the same event simultaneously through masculine and feminine eyes. An androgynous man is thus analogous to a male immigrant in the territory of women whereas an androgynous woman is like an immigrant in the nation of men. Gays are like immigrants in the world of heterosexuals.

Anyone with such an oblique perspective is privileged when it comes to artistic creativity. An immigrant, or an androgynous individual is more likely to see the same event as having opposite connotations. An ethnic joke that ridicules one's ancestry is simultaneously amusing and painful, for example. Similarly, an androgynous person is quite capable of enjoying a horse race and simultaneously grieving for the abuse meted out to human and equine contestants.

If a person naturally associates opposites in this way, they are very good at dredging up a large number of unusual mental associations which increases artistic productivity and complexity. This is called "divergent thinking." It is what tests of creativity assess by asking people to think of many different uses for a common object such as a brick, for example. Creativity is largely environmental and has only a small genetic component.

A person in the mainstream thinks more simply, and more convergently, i.e., using straightforward logic. They have trouble associating dissimilar images and the associations they do make are predictable, circumscribed, and conventional. That is why people raised in comfortable homes tend to be intelligent successful and happy but to lack creative drive (4). In Terman's classic study of intellectually gifted children many from affluent homes, for example, not one achieved prominence in any creative field.

A person doesn't have to be an immigrant, or a homosexual to be creative, of course, but something else gives them that oblique perspective. It might be childhood illness, or the loss of a parent, or some other experience that allows them to perceive the world differently from the mainstream.

1. Goertzel, V., Goertzel, M. G., & Goertzel, T. G. (2004). Cradles of eminence: Childhoods of more than 700 famous men and women. Scottsdale, AZ: Gifted Psychology Press.
2. Jonsson, P., and Carlsson, I. (2000). Androgyny and creativity. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 41, 269-274.
3. Florida, R. (2002). The rise of the creative class. New York: Basic Books.
4. Terman, L. M., and Oden, M. H. (1959). The gifted group at mid-life, thirty-five years follow-up of the superior child. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Nigel Barber, Ph.D., is an evolutionary psychologist as well as the author of Why Parents Matter and The Science of Romance, among other books.

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