The dark side of creativity: Biological vulnerability and negative emotions lead to greater artistic creativity

March 12th, 2012

The Researchers: M. Akinola and W. B. Mendes

Published In: Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Vol 34(12), pp. 1677-1686, 2008


Depression + Criticism = Creativity


“Artists are moody,” goes the old cliché. But does it have scientific merit? And, if people with certain dispositions are more likely to be creative than others, does environment play a role or is creativity set in stone?

In this study, nearly 100 people completed a standard creativity task: they manipulated triangles to form pictures then did a mock job interview involving a speech and a Q-and-A session. Evaluators gave either positive or negative feedback (participants in the control group gave the speech to an empty room). Afterwards, participants completed a questionnaire to measure their emotions, and made a collage out of a bunch of different materials—another standard creativity task.

People who got negative feedback tended to display more artistic creativity than other participants. This was especially true for those who had low levels of the hormone DHEAS, which is linked to depression. So people who were predisposed to feeling bad took the negative criticism particularly hard—and that down mood made them more creative.

If depression and criticism yield creativity, then it’s no wonder we're flush with tortured artists. 

Beauty connection

This doesn’t sound terribly heartening, but don’t take from it that you need to be depressed to be creative. (And don’t seek out humiliating social situations to try to stir up creativity, either!) Just remember that if you do have depressive tendencies, there’s a potential upside. The next time you’re enveloped in a mood, try to harness your emotions into producing something, rather than sinking further down. Being creative can help you feel better, too.

Read More by Wendy Berry Mendes:
Anxiety Can Help Us
The Upside of Stress
Why Surprises Feel Threatening 
Meet the Mind: Mendes Explains the Mind-Body Connection  

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