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).