Is Creativity Research Elitist?

I’m beginning to think that creativity research is elitist.

Exhibit A: The most prominent historical studies of creativity focus on high-status individuals: top art schools, Nobel-prize winning scientists; corporate CEOs. Howard Gardner’s book on creativity studied Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Graham, and Ghandi.

Exhibit B: Simon Kyaga’s highly publicized studies (2011, 2012) about creativity and mental illness defined creative people from an elitist perspective: anyone from one of these occupations: university teachers, visual artists, photographers, designers, display artists, performing artists, composers and musicians, and authors.

We’ve failed to study some of the most creative people, and I think it’s because they don’t have high social status. Four times, I’m going to name a creative profession that’s associated with the elite and that’s also studied by creativity researchers. Then, I’ll compare it to an even more creative profession that creativity researchers have never studied. I think we haven’t studied them because they’re not elite professions.

  • Stage actors: compared with children’s party clowns. I’d be the first to agree that actors are highly skilled. But they’re basically reading from a script, and following director’s instructions. Compare that to a person who hires herself out every weekend as a clown, for children’s birthday parties. That person has to create their own facial makeup and costume; their own name and persona. They have to decide on a set of interactive and fun activities that correspond to the ages of the children at that particular event; they have to interact and respond, in the moment, to unexpected developments and children’s personalities. Lots of creativity researchers have studied Broadway stage actors. But has anyone studied party clowns? No.
  • Ballet dancers: compared with football cheerleaders. As with actors, elite ballet dancers are highly skilled. But they’re basically following choreography that was created hundreds of years ago. Compare that to a team of cheerleaders performing at a high school or college football game. The team’s routines are often designed collaboratively by the cheerleaders themselves. They have to decide when, in each game, is the best time to execute a specific routine. Lots of creativity researchers have included ballet dancers in their studies. But has anyone ever studied cheerleaders? No.
  • Musicians: compared to vintage motorcycle mechanics. I myself am a highly trained classical pianist, so I’m talking about myself here: performing sheet music does not require creativity. Contrast this to vintage motorcycle repair: I own a 1982 BMW motorcycle, and I recently took it into a legendary mechanic here in North Carolina. Watching him take apart and analyze my motorcycle, I saw a very high level of creativity. Every one of these old motorcycles is slightly different, and every one has its own set of unique problems. (I highly recommend the book Shop Class as Soul Craft, it’s a brilliant discussion of this work.) Lots of creativity researchers have studied violinists and pianists. But has anyone studied the creativity of engine mechanics? No.
  • Writers of novels and short stories: Compared to ministers who write Sunday sermons. In contrast to the first three occupations, being a fiction writer requires creativity. But imagine the church minister who has to compose an original sermon (and most likely prayers as well) every Sunday. Each sermon involves great creativity. Lots of creativity researchers have studied novelists. But has anyone ever studied the creativity of ministers? No.

This pattern disturbs me, because I’ve seen it lead to bad science and faulty findings. Look back to Exhibit B: the Kyaga studies that defined creativity by occupation and their list of “creative occupations”: They’re all upper-class, high status professions. Kyaga found that these “creative” occupations were correlated with a higher rate of mental illness. But as every undergraduate learns in statistics, “correlation is not causation.” Maybe Kyaga just discovered that educated, upper-class people are more likely to be diagnosed with a mental illness. Andreasen argued that writers are more likely to be mentally ill than non-writers. Here’s a thought experiment: How many of you believe that church ministers are more likely to have a mental illness than an accountant?

I don’t know where we should go from here. I just wanted to start the discussion. Have you noticed this pattern in creativity research? Is it because elitism is embedded in our cultural conceptions of what counts as creative? Do you think it’s a problem?

Happy Artists: New Research Finds that Artists Are Happier Than the Rest of Us

Artists have a reputation for being unhappy and depressed. We tend to believe that artists are more likely to have mental illness than the rest of us–whether depression, bipolar disorder, alcoholism, and even suicide. But many scientists have claimed just the opposite: That artists are no more crazy than the rest of us. How could that be, when there are so many famous stories of mentally disturbed artists, from poets like Silvia Plath (suicide) to artists like Vincent van Gogh? What’s the real story–is there a link between artistic creativity and mental illness?

Probably not. Two new studies provide evidence that artists are more happy, and more psychologically stable, than the rest of us–exactly the opposite of our “mad genius” stereotype. The first is a massive study* using data from the European Value Survey, the British Household Panel, and the Swiss Household Panel, by a research team at the University of Zurich. The survey includes each person’s occupation, and then asks them to rate their job satisfaction on a scale from 1 to 10. The results show that “artists generally are happier than the rest of the population,” in the words of co-author Bruno S. Frey, the research director of the Center for Research in Economics, Management and the Arts at the University of Zurich.

A second study, from Vanderbilt University’s Curb Center for the Arts, Entertainment and Public Policy, surveyed 13,000 graduates of arts programs. Examining these results, Curb Center director Steven J. Tepper says “Arts graduates are resilient and resourceful…they are happy with [the careers] they put together.” Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, seconds this conclusion: “Artists tend to be happy with their choices and lives.”**

So why do we continue to believe the false myths about crazy artists? Actually, there is a good historical and cultural explanation–but it’s too long for a blog post, so for that, you’ll have to read Chapter 2 of my 2012 book Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation. But in the meantime, the take-home message today is that artists are well-adjusted and happy.

*Bille et al. 2013. Happiness in the Arts.

**Grant, D. 2013. What does a fine arts degree get you? The punch line: Maybe a job. Wall Street Journal, 11/11/2013, p. R2.

The Myth of the Mentally Ill Creative

You may believe in some variant of this myth: Creative people are more likely to be mentally ill than non-creative people; artists and writers are more likely to be alcoholics, clinically depressed, or commit suicide.  Anyone can think of at least one famous artist or writer who committed suicide (Hemingway, Plath) or did some other crazy thing (Van Gogh cutting off his ear).

I call this a “myth” because there’s no solid scientific evidence for it.  And there’s a pretty large amount of scientific evidence that creativity is associated with positive moods, happiness, and healthy lives.  There’s also a large amount of evidence that creativity is based in ordinary cognitive processes, not in a distinct brain region; that means that there could be no brain mechanism through which mental illness could affect creativity distinctly.  In other words, creativity is intimately tied with normal brain functioning, so if creativity is impacted then so is everything else our brain does.

The myth originated in the Romantic era, as I describe in detail in my 2006 book Explaining Creativity.  It has received an aura of scientific respectability in recent years, with a few rather small studies gaining a lot of media attention.  (And some being expanded into book-length treatments.)  I’ve just read a journal article by Judith Schlesinger* questioning the methodologies and the media interpretations of the most-cited publications reporting links between creativity and mental illness: those by Andreasen, Ludwig, and Jamison.  The article is a little bit strident for an academic journal article; between the lines of academic prose I can sense a bit of frustration on Schlesinger’s part: “I can’t believe anyone takes this stuff seriously!” she seems to be thinking.  I was surprised not to see any citations to the creativity experts who have gone on record claiming there is no link between creativity and madness: Weisberg, the creative cognition scholars, myself, a special issue of the Creativity Research Journal (2000-2001 volume 13 issue 1) although Simonton gets a mention for his  work.

The good news is that there’s no evidence that mild levels of mood disorder interfere with creativity.  (Although there haven’t been very good studies done of this possibility.)  However, severe mental illnesses generally result in reduced creativity.

I hope you will comment on this post, but keep in mind that one example of a creative and mentally ill person does not constitute scientific proof of a causal link.  That’s because a statistical connection also has to consider all of the mentally ill people who are not creative, and all of the creative people who are not mentally ill.  The only way to evaluate the myth is with large datasets and rigorously gathered data and diagnosis of the participants in the study.  And no such study has demonstrated a firm correlation; much less, a causal link.

Kudos to Schlesinger for publishing an article that I’m sure will get her some challenging and maybe even angry emails from various people who are deeply committed to this myth.

*Schlesinger, Judith. 2009. Creative misconceptions: A closer look at the evidence for the “mad genius” hypothesis. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, Vol. 3, No. 2, 62-72.