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Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and author of PsyBlog. His latest book is
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|Tom Sullivan Tries to Backtrack on His Comments, But
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|Creativity’s Monsters: Making Friends with Complexity
“To live creatively is a choice. You must make a commitment to your own mind and the possibility that you will not be accepted. You have to let go of satisfying people, often even yourself.” ~ Jessica Olien
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, studied the lives of 91 eminent creators, what he terms “big C” creatives who changed their domains, in search of what they might have in common. His conclusion? "If I had to express in one word what makes their personalities different from others, it's complexity” ().
By Sabine Fricke; Graffiti: Unknown (Sabine Fricke) CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
By "complexity" he meant having personalities of “contradictory extremes,” such as being both extremely smart and naïve, or traditional and rebellious, or objective and passionate. There is little middle ground. Creatively complex people are nearly impossible to “peg” as this or that. Their capacity to tap into a fuller range of what life has to offer is what allows them a broader response to life’s problems and questions, whether practical or artistic. This is in line with findings that openness to experience is an important part of creativity.
Csikszentmihalyi believes that we all can become more creative by consciously becoming more complex:
"A creative person is highly individualized. She follows her own star and creates her own career. At the same time, she is deeply steeped in the traditions of the culture; she learns and respects the rules of the domain and is responsive to the opinions of the field—as long as those opinions do not conflict with personal experience. Complexity is the result of the fruitful interaction between these two opposing tendencies."1
Creativity and Social Rejection
Complexity, however, is not for the faint of heart. Parents, teachers, friends, and employers are more at ease when we are predictable, when we confine our creativity to what is comfortable, when we remain free from conflict and controversy.
In “Inside the Box: People don’t actually like creativity,” Jessica Olien writes about how, beginning in school and continuing through the world of work, our society routinely discourages if not outright punishes creativity. Yes, we celebrate eminence and innovation, but we do not value the ways in which creative people think and feel and live. Children are rarely praised for their divergence. Workers who challenge the status quo are rarely rewarded. But Olien also writes that not fitting in may be just what we need to live a fully creative life:
“All of this negativity isn’t easy to digest, and social rejection can be painful in some of the same ways physical pain hurts. But there is a glimmer of hope in all of this rejection. A Cornell study makes the case that social rejection is not actually bad for the creative process—and can even facilitate it. The study shows that if you have the sneaking suspicion you might not belong, the act of being rejected confirms your interpretation. The effect can liberate creative people from the need to fit in and allow them to pursue their interests.”
The students in my creative thinking classes are emboldened when they learn that the complexity they had always thought of as something to hide or try to simplify, because it is messy and hard to understand, can actually be a creative asset. They also begin to re-think aspects of their childhood that were difficult and painful—parental divorce, bullying, learning disabilities—as preparations for them to be more fully themselves, free from the need to fit in because they already know that they can survive without fitting in.
Snatching Creativity from the Jaws of Defeat
In his theory of Positive Disintegration, a theory of personal growth and personality development, Kazimierz Dabrowski posited, “A great flow of creativity, changing direction, reach, subject, and level of the creativity, often follows after great defeats in life.” Like Csikszentmihalyi, he found in creative people "the struggle of contradictory sets of tendencies, an inadaptability to reality, a disposition to prospection and retrospection.”2 He argued that creativity “is often connected in some individuals with periods of emotional crisis, inner conflicts, and difficult life experiences. It seems to demand 'turbulence' in the inner environment.”3
WhiteBoyzCantRun at en.wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
This is not to say that we should seek pain and conflict for their own sake, but rather that we can cut ourselves some slack for lives that are imperfect. Our periods of disintegration can serve as opportunities for both creative and personal growth. Dabrowski argued that this is especially true of complex feelings we have about ourselves and that life-long creatives often have a persistent "sentiment of inferiority toward themselves.”4
Perhaps no other musician has explored through his art the complexity of a creative life more often or with more candor than Eminem (Marshall Mathers). His Grammy-nominated collaboration with Rihanna, “The Monster,” is no exception. The lyrics and the music video for the song reflect many themes present in much of his recent work, resonating with young and old alike: retrospection, conflict over one's domain, self-knowledge, self-doubt, self-acceptance, and fear of losing one’s creativity when life becomes less rather than more complex.
Before watching "The Monster" music video, learn more about the ideas behind it from Eminem's manager, Paul Rosenberg, including an Inception-like journey through Eminem’s career thus far, in “The Monster Explained (Behind The Scenes) ft. Rihanna.” Note that both videos contain some explicit language.
1 Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996). Creativity. New York: Harper Collins. p. 363
2 Dabrowski, K. (1967). Personality shaping through positive disintegration. Boston: Little, Brown. p. 129
3 Dabrowski, K. (1964). The theory of positive disintegration. Boston: Little, Brown. p. 115
4 Ibid. p. 50
Creative Commons Image links: Eminem performing in 2011 & Graffiti of Eminem in Shanghai, China
Being more creative often requires us to get along with our own messy selves.
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Creativity is about more than what time you wake up or what apps are on your phone. Being more creative requires us to be open to all the voices in our heads, even—or especially—the crazy ones.
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|Why Everyone Should Try Being Invisible
In the circles in which I travel—very small and strange circles, but circles nonetheless—the question of “which superpower would you want” comes up quite often. While others would usually answer super-speed or flight, I usually answer “invisibility,” although I’ve often struggled to articulate why. But I read something recently that made me think more about it, for which I am very grateful.
In a New York Times piece titled “How to Be Invisible,” Akiko Busch hails the benefits of social invisibility, positioning it as a salve to modern society’s tendency toward narcissism, the “look at me” preening so common to reality TV and YouTube. As Busch writes, “We live in a time and culture that value display and are largely indifferent to the virtues of passing unnoticed.” She points to Susan Cain’s book Quiet as well as the natural world as support for the value of invisibility, but I didn’t need convincing.
I’ve long tried to be invisible, at least in person if not in print. (I am a writer, after all.) Even when out among “the people,” I prefer to pass unnoticed, to blend with the crowd—which stands in stark contrast to my general contrarian nature in the world of ideas. Chalk it up to my introversion if you want, but my self-loathing probably explains it better. My desire to remain invisible is based less on wanting to be left alone and more on not wanting to bother anyone. I try to pass through crowds as smoothly as I can, letting people pass when they’re obviously in a hurry and holding open doors when I can, contributing while not taking. As Busch writes, “Invisibility can be about finding a sense of fit with the immediate landscape, be it social, cultural or environmental. It can be about adaptability and the recognition that assertiveness may not always be in our best interest. Most of all, it can reflect a sense of vigilance, a sensitivity to and respect for external conditions.”
As I’ve written before, my role models in this are servants, like the butlers of literature and film who seem more a part of the house than of the people in it, who add without subtracting, greasing the wheels of society within their small domain. It’s also a very Taoist idea: in verse 8 of the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu says, “The supreme good is like water, which nourishes all things without trying to. It is content with the low places that people disdain.” From the lowest places, where one cannot be seen, often the greatest good can be done, even if it goes unrecognized.
Returning to the topic of superheroes, invisibility takes several forms among the mask-and-cape crowd. Perhaps the most well-known of the unseen is Susan Storm Richards, also known as Invisible Woman of the Fantastic Four (played by Jessica Alba in the first two movies and Kate Mara in the upcoming reboot). Her power has been interpreted by various writers as symbolizing her feelings of living in the shadow of the men in her life, and was originally portrayed as a weak, defensive power, augmented shortly after her introduction with the more offensive capability to project force fields (invisible ones, of course). Over the fifty years of Fantastic Four stories, the Invisible Woman has developed into the most powerful and admirable member of the group, in both physical and emotional terms, but largely despite her most basic power, not because of it.
But invisibility can be a valuable trait, even if not in the form of a superpower granted by exposure to cosmic rays. Consider Batman, for example, who has no superpowers per se, but whom various writers over the years have portrayed as an unseen “urban legend,” which contributes enormously to his mission to protect the citizens of Gotham City. Also, the close association of the word “shadow” with Batman, and the striking image posed when a streetlight casts his immediately recognizable silhouette on the side of building in the dark Gotham night, points to the importance of the mere suggestion of his presence, which is often enough to strike fear into the hearts of criminals.
In fact, one of my favorite comic book series relies critically on Batman as a storytelling device while rarely showing him. Written by Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka and illustrated by David Lark, Kano, and others, Gotham Central was a series that chronicled the lives of members of the Gotham City Police Department as they tried to do their jobs in a city inhabited by masked vigilantes and criminal psychopaths. The absence of Batman from most issues of Gotham Central belied his importance to the storyline and how he defined the life of the GCPD and the people within it. Even when Batman did appear in the comic, it was often in silhouette, and the creators focused instead on the reaction of the GCPD detectives and officers to him, some appreciative and others resentful. Gotham Central showed not only the benefits to Batman of cultivating an air of mystery by remaining largely in the shadows, but also the way that invisibility can enhance storytelling. It’s common to hear the writing advice “show, don’t tell,” but sometimes the best way to show is not to show at all!
Invisibility can be just as beneficial and enriching in the real world as it is in the four-color world of comics. As Busch writes, “Escaping notice need not be about complacent isolation, mindless conformity or humiliating anonymity.” Invisibility doesn’t mean sacrificing one’s individuality; it only means not having to assert it all the time. In this sense, blending in can reflect a deeper sense of self-confidence than standing out—even if no one else ever knows.
For a select list of my previous Psychology Today posts on self-loathing, relationships, and other topics, see here.
I invite you to follow me on Twitter, visit me at my website, and sample my other blogs: Economics and Ethics and The Comics Professor.
Invisibility has tremendous benefits for normal people and superheroes alike.
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Maybe It's Just Me, But...
In The New York Times, Akiko Busch heralds the virtues of invisibility, contrasting with trends of increasing narcissism. I add my own personal perspective, drawing on Taoism as well as some of my favorite superheroes and comics.
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|Self-Care Sunday: Hard Questions
||In Thursday’s post I mentioned that sometimes self-care involves asking hard questions. I shared these examples: “What am I afraid of? What is important to me? What am I doing that I really don’t want to be doing? What do I really need? What do I need to let go...
|How Big are Psychological Sex Differences?
Sometimes sexual diversity researchers will produce a study showing men and women are psychologically different in some way. Not Mars versus Venus different, but different nonetheless. Other researchers might disagree citing a study that finds no psychological sex differences. In an impressive new study, Zell, Krizan, and Teeter (2015) reviewed 100s of past research findings and came to the conclusion that men and women are not very different psychologically. They came to this conclusion using a form of meta-analysis called "metasynthesis."
Meta-analysis is extremely useful for determining if, and by how much, men and women actually differ. Any single research study probably misses the mark at least a little bit in estimating the “true” size of psychological sex differences. Meta-analysis, in contrast, is when researchers simultaneously look across many studies and estimate the overall sex difference quantitatively, often expressed in terms of a “d” metric. A positive d value such as +0.50 typically indicates men are moderately higher on a psychological measure, a negative value like -0.50 indicates women are moderately higher. Below are some d values of varying strengths that have been observed in studies on human sex differences:
A d value of -0.20 has been observed for sex differences in trust (Feingold, 1994). The size of this sex difference is considered “small” and indicates 58% of women are higher than average man in trust (based on Cohen's U3).
A d value of +0.50 has been observed for sex differences in spatial rotation skills (Silverman et al., 2007). The size of this sex difference is considered “moderate” and indicates 69% of men are higher than average woman in spatial rotation skills.
A d value of +0.80 has been observed for sex differences in physical aggression (Archer, 2004). The size of this sex difference is considered “large” and indicates 79% of men are higher than average woman in physical aggression.
A d value of -1.00 has been observed for sex differences in tender-mindedness (Feingold, 1994). The size of this sex difference indicates 84% of women are higher than average man in tender-mindedness.
A d value of +2.00 has been observed for sex differences in throwing distance among children (Thomas & French, 1985). The size of this sex difference indicates 98% of boys throw farther than the average girl.
As I have noted in earlier posts, sex differences with larger d values are not “more real” than smaller-sized sex differences (see here). All men do not have to be taller than all women for a sex difference in average height to be “real” and have important social consequences. Sex differences with larger d values also are not necessarily more attributable to evolution or biology, and smaller sex differences are not more cultural or due to learning than larger sex differences. Meta-analysis alone cannot provide answers to such questions, as Zell, Krizan, and Teeter (2015) rightly note.
The observed d from a meta-analysis, whatever the value, is useful to the degree it represents fairly and systematically collected findings across many different samples, research labs, and time periods. Meta-analysis and observed d statistics give researchers much more confidence in declaring that men and women are, or are not, psychologically different to varying degrees and whether those differences are dependent on particular types of measures, geographic areas, or time periods.
Hyde (2014), for example, reviewed several psychological sex differences and concluded there are relatively moderate to large sex differences in spatial rotation abilities, agreeableness, sensation seeking, interests in things versus people, physical aggression, certain sexual behaviors (e.g., masturbation and pornography use), and attitudes about casual sex. Smaller sex differences exist in measures of gregariousness, reward sensitivity, conscientiousness, negative affectivity, relational aggression, and self-esteem. Some of these sex differences persisted in size across cultures and time periods, others did not (see also, Lippa, 2009; Schmitt, 2014).
In the recent study published in American Psychologist, Zell, Krizan, and Teeter (2015) conducted a “metasynthesis” in which they pulled together 106 previous meta-analyses of psychological sex differences across three areas: Social/personality variables, cognitive measures, and well-being. They concluded that, overall, men and women are not that psychologically different, with an overall d value of 0.21. Three important caveats should be noted about these conclusions.
First, the Zell et al. (2015) study was very limited in scope. They only looked at areas where researchers have actively questioned the existence of sex differences, likely limiting their findings to psychological sex differences so contentiously slight that they have been frequently and repeatedly subjected to meta-analyses. Conclusions about the “real” degree of psychological sex differences should evaluate a much wider range of variables. How wide? Well, it is better in science when one has an organizing theory to heuristically guide how one looks for sex differences. Evolutionary psychologists expect human sex differences to occur only in those domains where ancestral men and women faced different adaptive problems and sexual selection pressures (Okami & Shackelford, 2001).
For instance, evolutionary psychologists expect the sex who has lower levels of obligatory parental investment (in humans, males) to be higher in “sociosexuality” (i.e., willingness to engage in sex without heavy commitment). Human sex differences in sociosexuality have been demonstrated as culturally universal in a study of 48 nations (Schmitt, 2005) and again in a study of 53 nations (Lippa, 2008), with both studies finding the exact same size of worldwide sex differences with men being higher than women, d = +0.74. This is larger than any of the sex differences in the recent study by Zell et al. (2015), but it was not considered and has not been subjected to a “meta-analysis” as it is a largely uncontentious empirical finding (see also here). Sexual diversity associated with sociosexuality is just one example of the dozens of psychological sex differences expected from theories within evolutionary psychology.
Ellis (2011a, 2011b) used his evolutionary neuroandrogenic theory as a guide to examine psychological sex differences and amassed evidence of 65 apparently universal sex differences. These sex differences were shown to be universal across cultures, with not a single replication failure across 10 studies (probably too tough a criterion leading to an under-reporting of actual psychological sex differences). Using evolutionary theory to guide researchers how to look for sex differences versus when to expect no differences (i.e., domains where ancestral men and women have not faced different adaptive problems) yields a very different conclusion from the atheoretical view that men and women are largely indistinguishable overall.
Second, Zell et al. (2015) did not address the very informative cross-cultural variations in the size of many psychological sex differences. Zell et al. reported that the sex differences they did find were "largely constant across age, culture, and time period" (p. 17). However, sex differences in many aspects of personality, sexuality, and cognition are actually much larger in cultures with more egalitarian sex role socialization and greater sociopolitical gender equity. This includes sex differences in extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, openness, Machiavellianism, Narcissism, psychopathy, social dominance orientation, dismissing attachment, intimate partner violence, spatial location ability, spatial rotation ability, crying behavior, depression, benevolence values, love, empathetic occupational preferences, enjoying casual sex, mate preferences for attractiveness, self-esteem, and subjective well-being (Schmitt, 2014). Even sex differences in physical traits such as height, obesity, and blood pressure are conspicuously larger in cultures with more egalitarian sex role socialization and greater sociopolitical gender equity. This suggests it is unlikely that larger psychological sex differences are due to more traditional sex role socialization or patriarchy. Again, evolutionary theories involving life history strategies and ecological factors may be better at explaining the size of psychological sex differences, in this case how and why sizes vary across cultures (see Schmitt, 2014).
Third, Zell et al. (2015) did not utilize informative multivariate approaches that previously have revealed very large psychological sex differences (Del Giudice, 2009; Del Giudice, Booth, & Irwing, 2012). Rather than taking the average sex difference across each psychological dimension on its own, Del Giudice et al.’s multivariate method is to examine all psychological dimensions under consideration simultaneously (controlling for collinear overlap among dimensions). From a multivariate perspective, lots of small ds may be “additive” and create “planetary-size” sex differences when examined together (e.g., Del Giudice et al., 2012, found less than 10% overlap in men's and women's personality traits when looking across 16 dimensions simultaneously). By thinking about sex differences in terms of multidimensional space, this approach is probably a fairer evaluation of whether men and women differ, overall, within a particular multidimensional domain (such as “personality” or “cognition”).
In short, it is probably not true that psychological sex differences should be described as trivially small overall, especially if you know what to look at (heuristically guided by evolutionary theory), where to look (across a wide range of cultures), and how to look (using multivariate approaches). Men and women are members of the same species, but psychologically there are important differences that should not be overlooked if we are to maximize everyone’s medical, mental, and sexual health.
Archer, J. (2004). Sex differences in aggression in real-world settings: A meta-analytic review. Review of General Psychology, 8, 291-322.
Del Giudice, M. (2009). On the real magnitude of psychological sex differences. Evolutionary Psychology, 7, 264-279.
Del Giudice, M., Booth, T., and Irwing, P. (2012). The distance between Mars and Venus: Measuring global sex differences in personality. PLoS ONE, 7, e29265.
Ellis, L. (2011a). Identifying and explaining apparent universal sex differences in cognition and behavior. Personality and Individual Differences, 51, 552-561.
Ellis, L. (2011b). Evolutionary neuroandrogenic theory and universal gender differences in cognition and behavior. Sex Roles, 64, 707-722.
Feingold, A. (1994). Gender differences in personality: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 116, 429-456.
Hyde, J. S. (2014). Gender similarities and differences. Annual Review of Psychology, 65, 373-398.
Lippa, R. A. (2009). Sex differences in sex drive, sociosexuality, and height across 53 nations: Testing evolutionary and social structural theories. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 38, 631-651.
Okami, P., & Shackelford, T. K. (2001). Human sex differences in sexual psychology and behavior. Annual Review of Sex Research, 12, 186-241.
Schmitt, D. P. (2005). Sociosexuality from Argentina to Zimbabwe: A 48-nation study of sex, culture, and strategies of human mating. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 28, 247-275.
Schmitt, D.P. (2014). The evolution of culturally-variable sex differences: Men and women are not always different, but when they are…it appears not to result from patriarchy or sex role socialization. In Weekes-Shackelford, V.A., & Shackelford, T.K. (Eds.), The evolution of sexuality (pp. 221-256). New York: Springer.
Schmitt, D. P., Realo, A., Voracek, M., & Allik, J. (2008). Why can't a man be more like a woman? Sex differences in Big Five personality traits across 55 cultures. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94, 168-182.
Silverman, I., Choi, J., & Peters, M. (2007). The hunter-gatherer theory of sex differences in spatial abilities: Data from 40 countries. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 36, 261-268.
Thomas, J. R., & French, K. E. (1985). Gender differences across age in motor performance: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 98, 260-282.
Zell, E., Krizan, Z., & Teeter, S. R. (2015). Evaluating gender similarities and differences using metasynthesis. American Psychologist, 70, 10-20.
Sex Differences are Not Small if You Know Where to Look
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Are Men and Women Psychologically Different?
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|Two Ways to Clarify and Try Mindfulness and Meditation
|| Research has shown mindfulness and meditation-based programs to hold promise for treating a number of psychiatric conditions, including depression,anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Adding to this, a recent study by Harvard researchers soon to appear in Psychiatry Research Neuroimaging will report that participating in an...
|8 Ways You and Your Partner can Deal with
||This is not a substitute for medical advice, nor is it meant as professional consultation with a mental health professional. If you have ongoing symptoms which interfere with your functioning, please seek appropriate help. Disease is not sexy. Neither is chronic pain or illness. We shy away. We don’t want...
|Study suggests marijuana may be an effective treatment for depression
||A preliminary rat study out of the University of Buffalo’s Research Institute on Addictions (RIA) points to the possibility that certain components in marijuana might be helpful in treating chronic stress-related depression. The study, published in The Journal of Neuroscience, focused primarily on endocannabinoids — chemicals in the brain that are quite similar to the [...]The post Study suggests marijuana may be an effective treatment for depression appeared first on PsyPost.
|You Are Still Lovable
||When I was first diagnosed with bipolar 1, I took it pretty hard. My whole world had just been flipped upside down. A week prior I had been a Style Editor for a major website in California and then, there I was, sitting across from a psychiatrist with my mother at...
|The Silver Lining Around Fearful Living
We are so intimately connected to the world we live in. Not just with what is immediately around us, but also with what is happening on the other side of the globe. We can instantly communicate with people of all cultures, and even see their homes and villages on Google maps. It’s fascinating. But if you think back to when you knew so much less about the world it seemed so tantalizingly full of wonder and possibility. It seems there is a tradeoff between that sense of mystery and how much you know. This got me thinking: one good thing about fear, other than it stops you from doing stupid, dangerous stuff, is that can hold you back from learning the facts inside out, which may help keep that creatively inspiring sense of wonder alive.
A STUDY OF THE IMPACT OF THREAT ON EXPLORATORY BEHAVIOR
These ideas date back to a study I carried out as a graduate student with killifish from two lakes: one with killifish predators and one without killifish predators. The fish were caught and put into a relatively small section of a large tank until they had acclimatized. This small section was separated from the rest of the tank by a door that was initially shut. The larger section contained objects that were unfamiliar to them.
(Gabora & Colgan, 1990)
When the door was opened and the fish were allowed to leave their “comfort zone” and enter the unfamiliar portion of the tank, both groups explored it equally thoroughly, first increasing and then decreasing the amount of exploration, and in the end covering the same amount of territory. When I plotted exploration over time I got a hump-shaped curve, and the total area under the curve was the same for both groups. However, there was a big difference between them: the fish from the lake with predators took a lot longer to explore their new surroundings than the fish from the lake without predators.
By tuning only one parameter, the 'fear' parameter, the 'Explorer' computer program replicated the shapes of the curves that had been obtained by plotting exploration over time with the killish shown above.
I wrote a little computer program called “Explorer” in which there were two competing desires: the desire to explore a new environment and the desire to avoid fear (Gabora & Colgan, 1990). Unless the fear was at the maximum level, Explorer would always explore a new environment until it had covered it entirely. It’s exploration level would first increase as it “conquered” its fear and then decrease as there was less new territory to cover, just like what I observed with the killifish. But the higher the fear level was, the more slowly the curve rose and fell. Just by changing the fear parameter I got graphs that mirrored those of the two populations of killifish.
I spent many long hours watching those fish, and sometimes I felt sad for the ones from the lake with predators, thinking about how their past experiences held them back. But meanwhile I myself was slowly getting to find the town I was living in a little to “known” and predictable. I remembered how when I had first arrived in that town, the roads and alleys I now knew so well had had a mystique about them. It had seemed they could lead anywhere, and that feeling of possibility was creatively inspiring. That’s how I started thinking there is a tradeoff, loosely put, between knowledge and potentiality. It’s a theme that, in various ways, I’ve been exploring ever since.
A STUDY OF THE IMPACT OF THREAT ON CREATIVE WRITING
A student of mine, Sean Riley, thought it would be interesting to test the hypothesis that situations that are demanding, threatening, or involve conflict, put one in a more creative state of mind. There was indirect evidence in the literature that this is the case. For example, it had been shown that individuals who are in the midst of conflict set broader and more inclusive cognitive categories (De Dru, Carsten & Nijstad, 2008). Creativity is also positively correlated with group conflict (Troyer & Youngreen, 2009) anxiety (Carlsson, 2002). There was also some indication that negative affect leads to greater creative output (Akinola & Mendes, 2008).
One of the threatening photographs used in the study.
(Riley & Gabora, 2012)
We tested the hypothesis that threatening situations put one in a more creative state of mind by conducting a study with 60 participants, students at the University of British Columbia (Riley & Gabora, 2012). First the participants viewed a series of photographs and rated each one with respect to how threatening they found it. Next they then wrote two short stories: one based on the photograph they rated as most threatening, and the other based on the photograph they rated as least threatening.
The creativity level of the stories was assessed by multiple judges, all published authors of works of fiction, who were naïve as to the purpose of the study and who were not shown or told about any of the photographs. What we found was that the stories based on threatening pictures were rated significantly higher in creativity than the stories based on non-threatening pictures.
So here in my own lab we had evidence that even just looking at threatening pictures enhances creative output! Why would this be?
My own inclination is to explain it in terms of potentiality. The non-threatening photographs depicting situations that would likely continue to unfold along predictable, mundane paths. In contrast, the threatening photographs depicting situations where there are a wide variety of possible outcomes, ranging from death to ‘happily ever after’, and a greater variety of feelings that would be generated by these different outcomes. Another way of saying this is that the potentiality of threatening situations is higher -- there is more at stake -- and having something at stake is vital to good story telling.
Another way to explain this is in terms of the role of the creative process in reconciling potentially stressful inconsistencies in our worldview (Curl, 2008; Gabora, 1999). We want to believe that the world is just and fair, and that we, and those we empathize with, are deserving of, and will in the end receive, just and fair treatment. A threatening stimulus confronts and contradicts this view of how the world operates. In response, we tap into our creative potential and hone in on an explanation for the threat’s existence. This is done in an attempt to reconcile the worldview dichotomy, and impose a sense of meaning and understanding as to why this negative reality exists, ultimately forging a new and cohesive worldview structure.
This is related to Freud’s belief that when we are thwarted and in a negative emotional state, we need to find solutions, so we are more inclined, form strong associations and make deep connections. Because of the way our mind encodes information as distributed patterns of activation, this enables more overlapping of concepts previously thought to be unrelated, and is conducive to creativity (Gabora, 2000). Thus there is a positive correlation between negative affect and creativity (Akinola & Mendes, 2008).
These explanations may not be mutually exclusive, and there could be a grain of truth to them all. Whatever explanation you choose, it seems to be the case that there may be a silver lining to threatening situations. In processing them you work something out or come to some kind of acceptance, and if you do this through music or words or the tools of an artist you may be left with a gift, a creative “precipitate” of this transformative process.
Akinola, M., & Mendes, W. B. (2008). The dark side of creativity: Biological vulnerability and negative emotions lead to greater artistic creativity. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34(12), 1677–1686.
Carlsson, I. (2002). Anxiety and flexibility of defense related to high or low creativity. Creativity Research Journal, 14, 341–349.
Curl, K. (2008). Assessing stress reduction as a function of artistic creation and cognitive focus. Art Therapy, 25(4), 164–169.
De Dreu, C. K. W., & Nijstad, B. A. (2008). Mental set and creative thought in social conflict: Threat rigidity versus motivated focus. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(3), 648–661.
Gabora, L. (1999). Weaving, bending, patching, mending the fabric of reality: A cognitive science perspective on worldview inconsistency. Foundations of Science, 3(2), 395-428.
Gabora, L. (2000). Toward a theory of creative inklings. In (R. Ascott, Ed.) Art, Technology, and Consciousness (pp. 159-164). Intellect Press, Bristol, UK.
Gabora, L., & Colgan, P. (1990). A model of the mechanisms underlying exploratory behavior. In (S. Wilson & J. A. Mayer, Eds.) Proceedings of the First International Conference on the Simulation of Adaptive Behavior (pp. 475-484). Cambridge MA: MIT Press. [http://arxiv.org/abs/1309.7405]
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How threatening stuff can bring out your creative side
Blog to Post to:
One good thing about fear, other than it stops you from doing stupid, dangerous stuff, is that can hold you back from learning the facts inside out, which may help keep that creatively inspiring sense of wonder and possibility alive.
Mature Audiences Only:
Oscar-contender “American Sniper” is breaking box office records. What’s the secret? At an unsettled moment in the nation’s history, the movie shows us a hero based on Chris Kyle, an actual sniper whose “kills” in Iraq broke records. Shooting from rooftops, out of sight, he drops 160+ unsuspecting people at amazing distances. Though he’s conscientious about the women and children he sometimes kills, he’s cleanly enraged at the Iraqis he shoots. No apologies. Troops call him “Legend.”
Chris Kyle could be seen as a skilled assassin, but he insists he’s just trying to save other Americans from enemies. From infancy, when we wail for help, we look for heroic rescue from doctors, lovers, scientists, gurus, warriors—and now, apparently, snipers. At home, okay, values are under fire from all sides and incomes are in trouble.  It's tempting to think that this hero might save us. But why a sniper?
For one thing, in the style of Texas conservatism, this hero is vehemently sure he’s right. The movie invents a super-villain sniper named Mustafa for the hero to beat as Batman does. In his memoir Kyle’s not afraid to say he’s proud of killing “savages” and occasionally looting their homes because they’re dependent pussies like US welfare trash.  This is reassuring at a time when racism, welfare- and immigrant-bashing are in the air again back home, which usually means that people want to relieve stress by taking a poke at someone who can’t poke back.
Taking a swipe at someone—a “sly verbal attack”—is one definition of sniping. In the culture wars, rant broadcasting and politics regularly hide their sponsors and shoot at distant targets. Instead of attacking “lazy niggers,” say, you demand cuts in “wasteful big government” programs that rescue the poor. Fox news has become the model for character assassination by innuendo. 
Here’s where things get interesting. Like a billionaire in politics, sniper has the power of life or death over his victims, so the movie masks the unfairness by showing him facing danger all the time. And as in a video game, the targets die remote, sanitary deaths. No sticky blood, no spilled brains, sobbing relatives, and scary feelings to forget.
In addition, the sniper breaks records like a football star and is dubbed “Legend” by worshipful buddies. Back home, Texas feted Kyle in Cowboys stadium. But as in professional sports, the sniper-hero showed entrepreneurial initiative, monetizing his celebrity in a ghost-written best-selling memoir and other deals. He found Hollywood before Hollywood found him. And he dramatized popular religion too, inking a cross on his skin as he killed Muslims, and trying to help injured veterans at home.
Even Kyle’s death befits politically charged heroism. His widow Taya claims that “After he returned from war he was “blessed to be able to serve countless numbers of veterans during hunts and shoots. He discovered a new use for guns: healing.” That is, he thought that shooting would make crippled veterans feel heroic again. But when Kyle and a friend took a mentally disturbed Iraq veteran target shooting as therapy, the patient thought guns meant killing, and fearing they would kill him, killed them both.
To die trying to help yourself and a veteran undo the injuries of war is poignant. But it also confirms the political feeling that you can’t help some people. Better not try. The dead hero was celebrated in Cowboys stadium, but nobody pointed out the terrifying conflict that made Kyle’s “therapy” and death revealing.
Heroism has no natural limits. How much is enough? To keep breaking records can be addictive. If warriors and hunters don’t know where to stop, they become predators. This unspoken anxiety is one reason that publicity is now remaking the sniper into a loving family man. Taya Kyle turns the danger on its heads by arguing that guns are “healing.” She’s now a celebrity gun-advocate. In an address to the National Rifle Association Convention, she suggested that guns “were part of the fabric of Kyle’s identity.” People magazine (Feb. 9), by contrast, makes Taya a celebrant of the devoted family man (“He is still with me”). You can hear her straining as she preaches that her husband “loved his fellow man enough to take on the immense responsibility of using his gun—the only effective tool he had—to stop the evil coming at them.”
Nobody should pick on a widow. But Mrs Kyle dramatizes the twisted values of many troubled Americans today. For starters, her “love of fellow man” cliché implies that humankind needed to be rescued from alien “evil.” In fact, Kyle was killing Iraqis—also his “fellow man”—to save other Americans who were in Iraq killing Iraqis because of blatant official lies. Her husband’s rifle was not “the only effective tool he had.” He could have used his reason to challenge the lies that sent him to Iraq in the first place. Saddam had nothing to do with 9/11. The troops were not rescuing anybody from super-weapons, because the WMDs were a cynical propaganda tool. Most of the world openly protested at the lie; about half of US soldiers couldn’t handle it.
Kyle, says Taya, was supposedly “blessed” (more religiosity) to serve “countless” (more cliché) crippled veterans by taking them target shooting and hunting.
The woman knows that a psychotic Iraq veteran (Eddie Routh) murdered her husband. He thought it was in self-defense—the same motive given by president Bush for our invasion of Iraq. Routh hadn’t been properly treated at the VA because “it costs.”  But one painful truth leads to another: back home, Kyle himself suffered alcoholism and PTSD, and he too was trying to heal the emotional anguish of killing people without giving up guns and the rewards of heroic fantasy.
“Healing” with guns can be lethal. If like Eddie Routh you suffer from the terror of death and guilt about killing—with the fear that strangers might in turn kill you in revenge—guns are a symptom not a solution. In shooting targets and live bucks in a preserve, crippled veterans were trying to magically undo their terror and suffering by replaying combat, this time slaying the enemy bullseye target and the unarmed trophy buck to rekindle a conviction of mastery.
You can see how such a compulsion to undo fear might lead scared cops to shoot unarmed black “animals.” The justification is always heroic rescue: someday police violence will save your life. We’re told that Kyle’s father bullied him as a kid to save sheep from wolves, as if sheep and wolves were clearly labeled in a game. Behind this, needless to say, is a sorry history of pulp westerns, atrocious lynching, “incursions,” and degraded religion. Homespun sanctity justified the Puritans and other ethnic cleansers who saved white settlers by manipulating native American folks to the happy hunting ground.
Kyle kept leaving his family to go back to Iraq. Back home, he suffered panic and other symptoms of PTSD, drank and brawled too much. Taya says he sometimes jokingly pretended to shoot bad guys on TV with a real gun. The conventional explanation of PTSD is that combat reflexes persist when you’re no longer in peril. But being safe is also a let-down from the high of combat and triumphant survival. Kyle’s memoir and other projects were ways he tried to keep his heroic identity pumped up and to reintegrate his identities as killer and dad. More than once he told improbable tall tales of Rambo-like derring-do, such as plugging two wannabe carjackers at a Texas filling station and having the CIA excuse him from legal consequences because he was so special. Again: heroism can be addictive.
In a way the sniper-hero played out a national myth, since the US keeps trying to recreate the heroism of D-Day and saving Pvt. Ryan, today styling us the “global policeman.”
But reality needs to have its say. “Sniping” implies devious aggression, as in an ambush. The emphasis on the sniper’s skill tries to offset that sour reality. In fact sniping is all around us these days. Executive power (no paper trail) and technological remote control are prime examples. A CEO nods and in fifty towns paychecks disappear. Poof. A house explodes in Yemen and only a metal scrap in the rubble points to a drone from somewhere over the horizon. It’s all sniping. Like CCTV cameras, NSA snooping, cell phone tracking, and social media’s data grab, the sniper scope slyly oversees you and the world.
And sniping is the skill of a kleptocracy too. On Wall Street the so-called “invisible hand of the market” squeezes a trigger and regulations die in Congress, and valuations writhe in the markets. Using swaps, unseen bankers whack Birmingham, Detroit, 500 cities in Italy, and gasping Greece.  A financier can buy a company and out of the blue, legally, kill your union contract, cripple your pay, and blow away your health insurance altogether. Credit card, mortgage, pension, student debt, pink slip: blam. You never knew what hit you.
Maybe you were taken by surprise because you were watching a movie about a heroic sniper from Texas whose only motive for killing people is to save his American buddies. It’s a movie inspiring executive fantasies of zapping enemies from a lofty perch, as if ordinary life is really a euphemistic style of warfare. So sit back, enjoy the record kills. And if you can’t get to the rooftop yourself,
Wait for Rescue.
Resources used in this essay:
HKF for Tacit Muse
The Psychology of Abandon will soon be out in paperback from Leveller's Press.
Ernest Becker’s Escape from Evil has powerful insights into the creaturely motives underlying heroism and the drive for self-esteem.
1. Tyler Durden, “Fired before Hired: How corporations rigged the American dream,” zerohedge, January 28, 2015
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