What Criminals Can Teach Us About Creativity

A few weeks ago, I posed the question “Is Creativity Research Elitist?”. I pointed out that creativity researchers have studied high-class Western European creativity, but they’ve neglected working class creativity–like custom motorcycle mechanics, or small-town preachers writing sermons.

Right on cue, a new book’s just been published making basically the same point. The Misfit Economy argues that criminals can teach us a lot about creativity: pirates, hackers, gangsters, and prisoners. Here’s what their web site says:

What do pirates, terrorists, computer hackers and inner city gangs have in common with Silicon Valley? Innovation. Across the globe, diverse innovators operating in the black and gray economies are developing solutions to a myriad of challenges. Far from being “deviant entrepreneurs” that pose threats to our social and economic stability, these innovators display remarkable ingenuity, pioneering original methods and best practices that we can learn from and apply in our own worlds. The Misfit Economy seeks to unveil and leverage this new well-spring of ingenuity. Join us in exploring the dark side of innovation.

The book describes the creativity of Somali pirates, Amish camel-milkers (?), and moonshine bootleggers. But you won’t find studies of them in the creativity academic journals. I think it’s the same reason we don’t study small-town ministers–they aren’t elite enough. (I’m guilty, too–right now I’m studying fine art painters and elite designers.)

Most creativity researchers have defined creativity as a new product that’s both novel and also valued by society. In the latest issue of the Creativity Research Journal, Robert Weisberg argues that researchers should define creativity without requiring that the product be valued by society.* If creativity researchers take this to heart, then we should start studying working class creativity and criminal creativity. Otherwise, we risk publishing findings and developing theories that only apply to upper-middle class people. Speaking as a psychologist, I think it’s obvious that all these forms of creativity are based in creative mental processes and behaviors. So as a scholarly community, we need to do additional research to confirm that our research claims aren’t limited to educated elites.

*My own definition of individual creativity, unlike most of my colleagues, doesn’t include “value,” and for some of the same reasons that Weisberg uses (see my book Explaining Creativity).

5 thoughts on “What Criminals Can Teach Us About Creativity

  1. The definition I am familiar with, which can be traced back to Morris Stein, is that creativity is the bringing into being of novel things that are valued in at least one social setting. This is not the same as saying ‘valued by society.’ If the above definition is correct then this means that we can study all classes of creativity. A working class or criminal social setting, noting the two are not equivalent, reveals just as much about creativity as a middle class social setting does. I think the phrase ‘valued by society’ needs to be rephrased.

  2. Sorry but my first reaction and still my belief is that I can’t associate creativity with anything negative. Criminals, Somali Pirates, …, certainly can do things even by this definition. And they SHOULD be in the creativity academic journals. Heck, they could do something very creative for some uses but definitely not for their uses!!!

    1. But in fact there is an emergent literature on the so-called “dark side of Creativity.” I think that a fair number of people — even (or especially) in the absence of a formal definition for the word — would say that much of the work that went into creating the atomic bomb was “creative” (or that the bomb itself was creative, or that the people who made it were creative… wherever you want to put the creativity). For more about this dark side in the context of education, see some of the work by Cropley. For more about this dark side from a (Western, European) historical perspective, see J.H. Mason’s (2003) “The Value of Creativity” (and, e.g., his discussion of Shelley’s “Frankenstein”).

  3. Yes, I agree with all the comments. The definition used by researchers is, more specifically, new and “appropriate” or “useful” to a specific discipline/domain. Under that definition criminals and ministers can be creative, if what they do is found to be useful/appropriate to their colleagues. In the same way that non-physicists can’t judge what’s appropriate to the cutting edge of physics, non-criminals can’t judge what is appropriate to criminal appropriateness. I was mixing together “valued” with “valued by society” to be provocative, because in practice, it’s “valued by society” that gets studied. There is an exception that proves the rule, and that’s the Cropleys, who’ve been writing on this for a few decades. And in 2010, with Mark Runco and James Kaufman, they published another edition of _The Dark Side of Creativity_.

  4. Study is often dictated by what can be funded. I imagine there are fewer grant possibilities for those who would like to study creative criminals rather than more “acceptable” forms of creative work. Now if you could frame the work as studying criminal creative tendencies and with the intent of redirecting them toward more acceptable pursuits, there might be funders willing to back that.

    My other reaction to this post was — science fiction often explores what happens when we ship out all the “unacceptable” creative types. You end up with a dull society – no leavening in the bread.

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