We usually see creativity as a positive trait. Experts in happiness and psychology encourage the growth of creativity. Life can get complex with various problems. Quick an easy reactions often relieve the anxiety of complexity. However, ready-made solutions don’t always work for unexpected challenges. That’s when creativity becomes important. Creative individuals can discover fresh and distinct solutions to different problems. They think outside the box, discover new pathways, and create innovative approaches. However, like other personality characteristics, creativity also has a negative side. In psychology, we call this negative creativity “malevolent creativity” or the darker aspect of creativity.
With all the praises we sing to creativity, secretly we don’t like it. At least not in others. Looking at a fine piece of art at a museum is one thing, but when creativity is used in everyday life by others it flaunts social norms, leaving us surprised and adjusting to the unpredicted behavior. For example, one study found that “teachers said they liked creative students–yet when asked to define creativity they used words such as ‘well-behaved’ or ‘conforming.'” Perhaps, these teachers envisioned creativity as those students that colored neatly between the lines, using the predefined selection of colors provided by the teacher. Of course, this isn’t creativity at all. These students may skillfully, and in some cases, magnificently compete assignments. But they are performing as directed.
However, in this same study, when the teachers were given “adjectives that were typically used more to describe creative people, they said they disliked these types of students” (Cropley, et al., 2014). Perhaps, there is more to creativity than we normally attribute to this defining quality.
Definition of Creativity
Many early philosophers and psychologists posited that creativity consisted of two necessary elements.
- Valuable (Person, 2020).
All definitions typically contain the novel aspect. However, without the value aspect, we could define any nonsensical gibberish as creative. Or as Emanual Kant explains originality can also produce “original nonsense” (2011). We typically don’t ascribe valueless originality as creative. Value is a subjective term. What one person values is not necessarily of value to another person. To address the vagueness of value, many philosophers have introduced the aspect of functionality in its place. Ning Hao et al., defines “”creativity focuses on the originality and appropriateness of people’s creative products and ability to generate novel and effective ideas” (2016).
Basically, creativity is when you come up with new and unique ideas that have a useful purpose in achieving a goal. This definition allows for both positive creativity and as well as a darker kind of creativity—malevolent creativity.
Creativity means being able to come up with new and unique ideas, methods, or thoughts. While we usually think of creativity in relation to art, we can apply it to any situation where there is the possibility of a novel and original way to act.
Creativity and Rebellion
Inherent in any creative act is a form of rebellion against generally accepted rules. Rollo May (1909-1994), an influential existential psychologist, wrote in his book on creativity that “creativity and originality are associated with persons who do not fit into their culture.” He later in his book explains “we cannot escape our anxiety over the fact that the artists together with creative persons of all sorts, are the possible destroyers of our nicely ordered systems” (1994). In another book May adds that “the essential characteristic of a creative contribution is that it transcends prior experience and contains a revolt against it” (1999). Creativity is an expression of rejection of the structured norms, opening opportunity to implement something novel. Some of our greatest human achievements come by means of revolting against the current norm and implementing something new.
So, while creativity has power to create good, it also may fight against protective structures that may have a moral and ethical purpose. Not all structure of norms are bad. Some norms are basic rules of society. For example, when a married couple can’t get along, they get a divorce or live separately. Purpose, a planned, calculating murder designed to escape the confines of the marital bond is a creative skirting of societal rules and structure.
Negative Behaviors and Creative Personalities
Interestingly, many studies have found negative behaviors associated with creative personalities. “different studies have shown that creative people are more likely to manipulate test results, be able to tell more different types of creative lies than less creative people, be deceptive during conflict negotiation, and demonstrate less integrity (Cropley, et al., 2014). May brings to our attention that “creativity is certainly associated with serious psychological problems in our particular culture—Van Gogh went psychotic, Gauguin seems to have been schizoid, Poe was alcoholic, and Virginia Woolf was seriously depressed” (1994).
Carl Rogers also noted that creativity may have both positive and negative purposes (Hao, et al., 2016).
Definition of Malevolent Creativity
Malevolent creativity “denotes the utilization of creative thinking ability for the pursuit of malicious, antisocial, and destructive goals” (Perchtold-Stefan, et al., 2022). Intentions are key. For us to consider a novel behavior as malevolent creativity, there must be an underlying malicious, antisocial or destructive goal. This is vastly different than a negative outcome as a consequence of a creative behavior.
Early research focused on wide-scale malevolent creativity, such as terrorism, genocide, and torture. However, malevolent creativity is often found in all people on a much smaller scale. Psychologists often refer to this as everyday malevolent creativity.
Malevolent Creativity is creativity used in the pursuit of malicious, antisocial, and destructive goals.
The Difference Between Negative Creativity and Malevolent Creativity
The literature makes a clear distinction between negative creativity and malevolent creativity. While they often overlap and coexist, the definitions are distinct. Negative creativity is the use of “creative processes to achieve negative goals, but without the intention of intentional harm” (2022). While harm to others may not bother the person utilizing negative creativity in pursuit, the harm is not the goal in and of itself. Perhaps, power or money is the goal while harm to others is just an acceptable path while they pursue these goals.
Defense Mechanisms and Creativity
Interesting research findings discovered evidence that “threatening stimuli provoked more creative responses than non-threatening stimuli.” The researchers argued that “these types of threats can invoke disequilibrium and creativity can help reduce such cognitive dissonance” (Cropley, et al., 2014).
This aspect of creativity is of particular interest to the tone of the Psychology Fanatic project since the core focus of my research is on emotional arousal, homeostasis, emotional regulation and defense mechanisms. We can use creativity to regulate arousal, either through conscious healthy means, or through negative unconscious processes. Sometimes we may even sprinkle our emotional regulation with a dose of everyday malevolent creativity. We may actually enjoy the pain we dispatch through well-timed and pointed passive-aggressive remarks. Or, perhaps, retaliate in complex and calculating behaviors that we design with the intent to cause harm.
Many seemingly harmless people have devised and executed elaborate schemes of hurt through malevolent creative campaigns on the internet directed to destroy a designated target.
A Few Words by Psychology Fanatic
Creativity is a trait or skill. I believe we can utilize creativity to accomplish great feats and navigate this complex life. However, creativity is best coupled with other traits such as compassion and kindness to prevent our creative impulses from slipping to the dark side.
Cropley, D., Kaufman, J., White, A., & Chiera, B. (2014). Layperson Perceptions of Malevolent Creativity: The Good, the Bad, and the Ambiguous. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 8(4), 400-412.
Dou, Xinyu, Dou, Xinyan, Jia, Lin, & , (2022). Interactive Association of Negative Creative Thinking and Malevolent Creative Thinking. Frontiers in Psychology.
Hao, N., Tang, M., Yang, J., Wang, Q., & Runco, M. (2016). A New Tool to Measure Malevolent Creativity: The Malevolent Creativity Behavior Scale. Frontiers in Psychology, 7.
Jia Xuji, Wang Qingjin, Lin Lin (2020). The Relationship Between Childhood Neglect and Malevolent Creativity: The Mediating Effect of the Dark Triad Personality. Frontiers in Psychology: Volume 11.
Kant, Emanual (1790/2011). Critique of Judgment. Hackett Publishing Co.; 1st edition.
May, Rollo (1994). The Courage to Create. W. W. Norton & Company; Revised ed. edition.
May, Rollo (1999). Freedom and Destiny. W. W. Norton & Company.
Perchtold-Stefan, C., Rominger, C., Papousek, I., & Fink, A. (2022). Antisocial Schizotypy Is Linked to Malevolent Creativity. Creativity Research Journal, 34(3), 355-367.
Pearson, James (2020). The Value of Malevolent Creativity. The Journal of Value Inquiry, 55(1), 127-144.