If you can’t get enough of the myth of the mad genius, you’ll love the results of this new study: In the journal Personality and Individual Differences, researchers suggest that creative individuals share more personality traits with psychopaths than their less creative peers do. Or, as the Daily Mail puts it with signature hyperbole, “Are YOU creative? Then you’re probably a psychopath.”
Led by psychologist Adrianne John Galang at De La Salle University in Manila, the study found that those who scored high on measures of creativity also exhibited higher levels of emotional disinhibition, as well as dishonesty and risk taking — traits also disproportionately exhibited by psychopaths. The good news is that the antisocial traits associated with psychopathic tendencies, such as cruelty, were not found to be positively correlated with creativity, so you needn’t worry that your artist friend is actually Patrick Bateman.
“Emotional disinhibition, in the form of psychopathic boldness, is actually integral to some creative personalities and functionally related to the creative process,” the researchers write in the paper. “A creative field might not just shape a person into a more arrogant or dishonest personality, it might be actively selecting them, not for the sake of having disagreeable traits, but because such traits meaningfully co-vary with creativity itself.”
The study consisted of three parts and examined both scientific and artistic creativity. First, Galang had 503 participants fill out an online questionnaire designed to measure respondents’ narcissism, duplicity, and Machiavellianism. A second experiment identified signs of boldness, meanness, and disinhibition in 250 college students. In both of these, participants were also asked about their creative achievements, including awards, citations, publications, artwork sold, and inventions.
“We found that [signs of creativity] were correlated with dark triad narcissism and psychopathy, but the stronger correlation was for psychopathic boldness,” Galang explains.
In the final experiment, 93 students were asked to participate in a series of gambling and divergent-thinking tasks while researchers measured the electric conductance of their skin (essentially, their stress levels). The most creative participants, they found, exhibited the fewest signs of excitement during the exercises, suggesting emotional disinhibition. “Together, [the three] studies support the basic claims of the model regarding the link between emotional disinhibition and creativity,” the researchers write.
Past research on psychopathic traits across various professions does not place artists particularly high on the spectrum, relatively speaking. In his book The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success, Kevin Dutton ranks the professions most likely to attract psychopaths: CEO tops the list, followed by lawyer, while artist, in Dutton’s assessment, is a less likely candidate. But that doesn’t necessarily contradict Galang’s findings. “Our claim is not that you need psychopathic traits to be creative, which is silly, but that in some highly creative people, the creativity and [psychopathic] personality traits arise from the same origin: A particular brain configuration and dopamine,” Galang writes.
Galang argues that the results of the study needn’t encourage fear of “divergent” thinkers; instead, they could help foster creativity “in both educational and professional settings” by encouraging the “cultivation of forms of boldness, while seeking to mitigate the more harmful forms of disinhibition.” Just imagine if Hannibal Lecter had been taught to channel his disinhibition into art!