Does Creativity Have its Dark Side?

When creativity turns malevolent, you'll want to stay out of its way.

Posted Mar 21, 2015

As impossible as it may sound, creativity isn’t always a good thing. Psychology has traditionally deemed the “think outside the box” mindset as far more preferable than sticking within the straight and narrow. Decades of research have linked creativity to a myriad of positive outcomes, with “flow” (the feeling of being internally motivated) seen as the key to happiness.  

Historically, the creative geniuses—such luminaries as Michelangelo, Mozart, and Picasso—are lauded for their brilliant and lasting contributions to the arts. The Thomas Edisons, Henry Fords, Albert Einsteins, and Marie Curies of science permanently changed the way the world operates, with accomplishments that could only have been produced by the most creative of minds. The psychological analysis of people endowed with creativity with a capital “C” (the eminently creative) contrast their gifts with those whose creativity takes the “lower case” form of living a creative life.

Against this compelling backdrop, we may, therefore, wonder why anyone would propose that creativity can have a dark side. The examples of creativity we tend to remember are those that brought improvements to the world, if not our own daily lives. We put in a different category the creative geniuses whose powers were put to harmful use. But are they, in fact, exercising the same skill?

The question of whether there can be a dark side to creativity led University of Nebraska psychologists Daniel Harris and Roni Reiter-Palmon (2015) to explore David Cropley’s concept of malevolent creativity, or the use of creativity to achieve a harmful goal. Creativity can be harmful without being malevolent, according to this view. A creative individual may make a scientific or cultural contribution that has unintended negative consequences.

For example, 3-D plastic printing can be used to create artificial limbs that help people navigate their world more adaptively—or handguns that escape metal detectors. Facebook can be used to promote social interaction and maintain long-distance bonds—or it can be put to the harmful goal of cyberbullying. In both cases, the original product was a true innovation, but it’s up to users to determine whether its effects help to enhance life or to take it away. In malevolent creativity, the original intent is to cause harm.

Malevolent creativity is aimed toward destructive consequences only. From committing acts of criminal activity or serial murder to terrorism, the malevolently creative seek to attack targets, invoke fear, and assert their power.

In addition, just as creativity can be eminent (with a capital “C”), so can malevolent creativity; it can also, conversely, take an everyday form in which it’s practiced in ordinary circumstances. The malevolently creative attempt to manipulate others to their own ends, create mischief just for the sake of creating mischief, and try to deceive the people closest to them.

Harris and Reiter-Palmon decided to tackle the roots of malevolent creativity in personality—specifically, by investigating the role of aggression. They were particularly interested in implicit aggression, or the tendency to rationalize an aggressive course of action in a given situation. People who are prone to aggression tend to act out, as you might guess, without giving it much thought. However, if they consider the future consequences of their actions, they are able to manage and even control their aggressive impulses. It’s only when they are triggered to act quickly that the truly aggressive set aside their ethical decision-making and justify their harmful behaviors.

The tendency toward malevolent creativity, then, may reflect a combination of factors from the individual (aggressiveness) and the situation that triggers the response. As the researchers obviously couldn’t use real-life situations to test their theory, they created scenarios intended to invoke malevolent creativity that cued participants to experience the negative emotions of hostility, anger, injustice and a desire for revenge. The “benevolent” creativity scenarios were intended to stimulate the desire to cooperate, help, and use thought rather than action to gain a positive outcome.

A sample of 138 undergraduates (31 percent male; average age 25 years old) completed a series of questionnaires intended to assess implicit aggression, a tendency toward premeditation, and divergent creativity (the ability to think of multiple solutions to a problem). The key question was whether the tendency toward implicit aggression would interact with premeditation to influence the number of creative ideas that flowed in response to the malevolently creative problem (the one that elicited feelings of rage and a desire for revenge).

As predicted, when the researchers presented them with the problem that triggered malevolent creativity, participants high in implicit aggression and low in premeditation expressed the largest number of malevolently-themed solutions. When presented with the more benign problem that triggered prosocial motives of helping others and cooperating, those high in implicit aggression, even if they were high in impulsiveness, were far less destructive in their imagined solutions.

The study’s findings led the authors to conclude that it was premeditation more than implicit aggression that controlled an individual’s expression of malevolent creativity. Being able to hold off on their impulses, in other words, can make even those primed to be aggressive less harmful when provoked.

There are important implications of this laboratory investigation of malevolent creativity for everyday life. As Harris and Reiter-Palmon point out, toxic work conditions in which bosses place their employees under stress, promote competition, and in general are abusive and hostile are more likely to produce employees who actively try to harm, outdo, and manipulate each other.  Believing that it’s okay, if not desirable, to act aggressively, they’ll be more likely to come up with aggressive solutions in maintaining their competitive edge. When they perceive that they’ve been wronged, they’ll dream up ways of getting back at their coworkers that, short of being overtly aggressive, harm them in emotionally abusive ways. Similarly, we might argue that in the home, malevolent creativity can also inadvertently be fostered among siblings when their parents reinforce aggression and themselves are abusive.

With the idea of malevolent creativity, we may be better able to understand—and control—a person’s urge to dream up imaginative ways to harm others and instead put on the ethical brakes.  Creativity can help everyone lead a more fulfilling life, especially when we recognize its potential dark side.

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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2015


Harris, D. J., & Reiter-Palmon, R. (2015). Fast and furious: The influence of implicit aggression, premeditation, and provoking situations on malevolent creativity. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, And the Arts, 9(1), 54-64. doi:10.1037/a0038499