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Are Creative People More Likely to Be Psychopathic?

Great artists can be bold and divergent thinkers. They're not alone.

Source: bikeriderlondon/Shutterstock

Of the many traits associated with psychopathy, creative ability is likely not the first one that comes to mind. The inability to experience remorse, a tendency to manipulate and exploit others, and a pattern of deception and lack of control over impulses all make up the standard profile of the psychopath. However, some of the traits we see in psychopaths, particularly a desire or need to follow the beat of their own drummer, also appear in individuals who are highly creative. Adrianne John R. Galang and colleagues, at De La Salle University in the Philippines (2016), believe that there is a prosocial type of psychopath who, unlike his or her criminal counterpart, puts his or her impulsivity and boldness to good use.

As Galang and colleagues note, “The trickster, thief, and rascal are figures of myth that straddle both virtue and vice … [The trickster] is able to solve problems through cleverness, and always with liberal applications of skullduggery.” The creative person isn’t always the most agreeable individual, and, the research team argues, “might be equal parts genius and deviant” (p. 28).

Here’s an interesting proposition: Most of the psychological descriptions of the psychopath, or people high in psychopathic traits, focus on the deviant kind and not on the creative genius. Breaking the rules, the Philippines authors argue, takes a certain willingness. After all, Picasso “broke the rules” of art when he went cubist. At the same time, though, a willingness to define rules on your own terms can lead individuals to decide to lie when it’s convenient for them, justifying their deception by seeing themselves as not responsible for their behavior.

Creativity involves, furthermore, “divergent thinking,” in which you form wide-ranging thoughts instead of sticking with the tried and true. One test of divergent thinking is the ability to come up with unusual uses of familiar objects. For example, how many different ways can you use a paper clip? The more uses, and the more original they are, the higher your divergent thinking. You can see how this type of creativity might relate to a tendency to look at things from all possible angles, even including some that might be a bit twisted.

According to Galang and his colleagues, there’s a physiological underpinning to all of this. The creative individual, like the psychopath, is less emotionally inhibited than others by the norms of social convention. This disinhibition underlies both bold risk-taking (the creative side of the equation) as well as callousness (the antisocial side). The neurotransmitters responsible for emotional disinhibition involve the dopaminergic system, involved in a desire for novelty and a tendency to seek reward. The psychopath and the creative individual may share an overabundance of dopaminergic activity, making each crave risky, and rewarding, experiences more than is true for the average person.

Using an online sample of more than 500 Filipino adults (average age: 22), the team first examined the relationship between creative achievements and questionnaire scores on the so-called “Dark Triad” traits of psychopathy, Machiavellianism (a tendency to manipulate others), and narcissism. The creative achievements scale assessed “eminent” creativity (such as winning a prize for one’s work) and more mundane creativity (taking music lessons). The results met the expectation that psychopathy would be significantly correlated with creative achievements. Narcissism scores also correlated with self-reported creativity, due, as the authors suggest, to the tendency of people high in this self-aggrandizing quality to over-emphasize their own accomplishments.

Looking at specific areas of creative achievement, scores on the scale measuring architectural creativity were most strongly related to all three Dark Triad traits. According to Galang, this finding is consistent with those of other studies, and suggests that architecture, with its emphasis on both art and science, may be the best area in which to assess the general quality of creativity.

Using a sample made up of college students, a second study in the Galang et al. research examined the qualities of “boldness,” “meanness,” and “disinhibition” in relationship to self-reported achievements. From writing to, once again, architecture, the bold were more likely to claim credit for their creative accomplishments.

There was an intriguing gender difference for Meanness and Disinhibition in relation to creativity. These personality traits were related to creative achievements for men only. The Filipino team suggests that these gender differences reflect a double standard in how much leeway the creative man is given vs. the creative woman:

“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” (p. 32).

Think about how Georgia O’Keeffe was perceived, compared to Picasso: In her later life, O’Keeffe was sexually involved with a far younger man, an affair that raised many eyebrows in the artistic community. Picasso’s similar liaisons were viewed with far greater acceptance (and even celebration).

These first two studies were, admittedly, correlational—other than showing a relationship between creativity and psychopathy, they weren’t able to provide insight into the role of psychophysiology as a possible link. In their third study, Galang and his colleagues attempted to establish if such a link might exist. They established a basis for evaluating a person’s willingness to take risks by using an online gambling test in which participants spent virtual money betting with one of two decks of computer-generated cards. One deck paid well but had long odds, and the other paid more moderately but also had moderate payouts. In this task, a risky decision-maker will bet more money on the long-odds deck. Creativity was separately measured in this study by giving participants an empty liquor bottle and asking them to list as many uses for it as they could imagine, and also by asking participants to imagine a scenario in which people no longer needed to sleep. Electrodermal measurements were taken during the gambling task, producing scores reflecting how aroused participants became just prior to finding out the results of their bets in successive trials.

The findings provide support for the “prosocial psychopath” model in that lower arousal during the gambling task, suggesting greater boldness, was related to higher scores on the creative thinking test. As the authors concluded: “[E]motional disinhibition, in the form of psychopathic Boldness, is actually integral to some creative personalities, and functionally related to the creative process” (p. 34).

We want to be careful when drawing conclusions from any correlational study, including one that relies on psychophysiological data. It’s not possible to draw any causal chains from personality to creativity or vice versa. Additionally, as pointed out by the authors, there is the role of context or the environment: Do successful creative people become drawn into situations that foster their dishonesty or arrogance? Do we excuse the bad behavior of creative people because they think differently? In a way, this is like the narcissistic bubble explanation for what happens to celebrities and politicians, whose sense of being special is reinforced by the people who protect them from having to deal with many realities of everyday life.

In summary, just because someone is creative doesn’t mean the person is nice, and just because someone has psychopathic tendencies (especially boldness) doesn’t mean the person has no socially redeeming qualities. Creativity may come at a price for some people, but it also means that if we could tap into the creative vein of people with psychopathic tendencies, we might be able to foster their healthy, prosocial, development.

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Galang, A. R., Castelo, V. C., Santos, L. I., Perlas, C. C., and Angeles, M. B. (2016). Investigating the prosocial psychopath model of the creative personality: Evidence from traits and psychophysiology. Personality and Individual Differences, 10028-36. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2016.03.081

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2016