The Downside of Genius

Brilliance has its costs. The smartest person in the room may be as insufferable as she is inspiring, and angst-ridden artists may introduce us to brave new ways of thinking.

The Downside of Genius

When pursuit of the truth goes too far.

Genius has a personality and many of us may find at least one aspect of it surprising. My new book, Genius Unmasked, reveals one particularly startling aspect of genius: Geniuses were so bent on discovery and so non-conformist that they often crossed the line of ethics in pursuit of truth. 

A generation of research suggests that geniuses tend to have three salient personality traits: autonomy, openness, and persistence. Each of these attributes can have benefits for innovation but they can also have downsides.  

Creativity scientist Howard Gardner likened creative thinkers to children. In his view, both exhibit “selfishness, self-centeredness, intolerance, silliness, stubbornness...” but, more positively, “the ability to ignore convention, to follow a lead where it goes, to ask questions that adults usually have stopped asking, to go directly to the essence of an issue.” Autonomy is a characteristic that many of us refer to in the vernacular as being “strong willed.” It allows for self-confident intellectual independence. Nothing seems to stop innovators from bringing the creative process to fruition. Self-efficacy bestows upon creative thinkers the determination to carry on through years of struggle, tedium, and the negativity of skeptics. But as Gardner pointed out, the genius personality is a two sided coin. On the dark side is the potential to become arrogant or narcissistic and to engage in behaviors that are oppositional or even antisocial. 

Curiosity and openness to experience, the second dimension of the innovative personality, is not only common but may be essential for creativity. Most creators that we consider geniuses, men like Darwin and Pasteur and women like Maria Montessori, were ravenously curious, indeed, so restless that they consistently took risks in order to quench their desire to know.  

“Creativity,” according to Dowd (1989), “demands that we constantly reevaluate our existing cognitive categories and remain willing to modify or even suspend them on occasion.” New facts and experiences are ardently sought by geniuses; information is viewed or combined in new ways; offbeat experiments are tried. But openness further suggests a lack of inhibition—a dearth of being limited by expectations. While all of this pushes science to the limit, it also increases the likelihood of crossing the thin line of acceptable scientific behavior.

Perseverance is the final feature most consistently noted among great innovators. Adelson interviewed the 2002 Franklin Institute laureates and found that their determination and dedication to problem-solving proved to be a trait most concordant with all of their successful, creative endeavors. Tenacity allows creative thinkers to surmount obstacles. Putting forth ideas is one thing—seeing them to fruition is quite another. Ambition and discipline are other qualities that support the kind of single-minded commitment that allows creators to find success. At the same time, the dangers of unfettered ambition are well-known in science, as they are in business and politics. Like the other traits, a little ambition is good—too much can be sociopathic.

So autonomy, openness, and persistence are almost universal among innovators and most previous commentaries have taken a laudatory view of the creative personality. But there are some geniuses that demonstrate an unsavory disregard for others. One of the most infamous examples is Stanley Milgram, most famous for his research on human obedience to authority.

Milgram deceived his subjects, making them think they were involved in a word-learning experiment when actually he was testing their willingness to conform to authority. In the study, Milgram persuaded subjects to think they were shocking another volunteer. His question was, how far would they go under the direction of an authority figure? In Milgram’s own words: “I wondered whether groups could pressure a person into performing an act whose human import was more readily apparent, perhaps behaving aggressively toward another person, say by administering increasingly severe shocks to him…  At that instant, my thought shifted…Just how far would a person go under the experimenter’s orders? It was an incandescent moment…” 

As Milgram’s research subjects increased the shocks, they heard the person supposedly being shocked (who was hidden behind a wall) grunt, then complain, then plea for the experiment to end.  There was no voltage actually administered, and what the subjects heard were recordings, but subjects believed it all to be real.  If the subject stopped or hesitated, the experimenter (the authority) was scripted to calmly but potently recite prompts such as, “Please go on”; “It is absolutely essential that you continue”; “You have no other choice”; “If you don’t continue we’ll have to discontinue the entire experiment.”  Notably, the authority never used coercion, never any threat. 

A remarkable 65% of participants administered the maximum possible voltage —450 volts. That is, for two thirds of all subjects, obedience overrode the prohibition against harming a stranger. The result was a bombshell—including to mental health professionals and even to Milgram. Forty psychiatrists were asked to predict how far subjects would go. In general, they predicted that most subjects would not go beyond 150 volts.  Their belief was that one tenth of one percent of subjects would continue to 450 volts.

Milgram later argued that the only way to answer his question about obedience to authority was to create a realistic setting. He may have been correct. Because of the validity of his methods, science gained great insight. Like so many others, Milgram sought to understand how it was possible for the German public to watch the Nazis exterminate millions of innocents. In a report to his funders, Milgram wrote “…I once wondered whether in all of the United States a vicious government could find enough moral imbeciles to meet the personnel requirements of a national system of death camps, of the sort that were maintained in Germany. I am now beginning to think that the full complement could be recruited from New Haven.”

Stanley Milgram was not alone in crossing the line of ethics in the pursuit of science. Even the darling of modern innovators, Thomas Edison, became embroiled in repellant practices. Edison was intent to promote his newly invented light bulb connected to a system of lighting that ran on DC current. Tessla and Westinghouse, in the meantime, had developed a competing system of AC current. As depicted in Josephson’s biography of Edison, “There on any day in 1887 one might have found Edison and his assistants occupied in certain cruel and lugubrious experiments: the electrocution of stray cats and dogs by means of high tension currents. In the presence of newspaper reporters and other invited guests, Edison and Batchelor would edge a little dog onto a sheet of tin to which was attached wires from an AC generator supplying current at 1000 volts.” Despite testimony from trusted associates that AC current was no more dangerous than DC, Edison waged the “war of the currents” in which he was intent to squelch Westinghouse’s alternative. Indeed, Edison’s public statements were so inflammatory that Westinghouse considered bringing a libel suit. Not until 20 years later did Edison admit that he had been wrong. Surely, this was not the result of an overabundance of originality but instead the accumulation of a lifetime of over-confidence.

A revelation, therefore, in writing Genius Unmasked was that in the case of some geniuses, the most radically original thinking may have the greatest blind spot for human interactions. In order to progress science in solving the problems of the many, some geniuses were surprisingly willing to tread upon the few.

DR. ROBERTA NESS is the author of Genius Unmaskedand Innovation Generation: How to Produce Creative and Useful Scientific Ideas and Creativity in the Sciences. She has authored over 300 scientific papers and books. She is a member of the Institute of Medicine National Academies of Science, a Fellow of the American College of Physicians, a Fellow of the American College of Epidemiology, and a frequent advisor to the National Institutes of Health, Department of Defense, and Centers for Disease Control.

The Downside of Genius