Laypersons and academics alike have largely viewed creativity as a positive force, a notion challenged by the philosopher and educator Robert McLaren of California State University at Fullerton in 1993. McLaren proposed that creativity had a dark side, and that viewing it without a social or moral lens would lead to limited understanding. As time went on, newer concepts—negative and malevolent creativity—included conceiving original ways to cheat on tests or doing purposeful harm to others: for instance, innovating new ways to execute terrorist attacks.
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Take a situation in which you want to go to an event but the tickets are sold out. A creative person predisposed to deception and moral flexibility might come up with a solution involving bribing guards or pretending to be an organizer at the event. Another creative individual with a more positive mind-set might suggest creating a social-media campaign, for or against the event, to gain traction, recognition, and subsequently, entry into the event.
The question for me and my academic adviser, the psychologist Azizuddin Khan at the Indian Institute of Technology at Bombay, was whether both solutions should be used, and whether both are truly creative. We looked at the problem through what psychologists call the “four Ps” of creativity—person (the individual engaging in the act), process (the strategy employed), product (the creative outcome itself), and press (the situation at hand). After a series of five experiments, we concluded that negative creativity (product) is most likely to be displayed by highly intelligent people with subclinical negative personality traits such as psychopathy, especially in open-ended situations in which deception can succeed. When creative people had a negative, morally questionable goal up front, they were also more likely to lie.
We confirmed that the dark side of creativity exists, and is important to acknowledge and understand. People can get hurt in surprising and original ways by practitioners of this dark craft. And, just as important, an entire set of misbehaviors with the potential to help us learn more about human creativity may be going unnoticed and ignored.
What if, after knowing that the dark side exists, we consciously try to use it? Is that really always bad? Khan and I think it depends. Perhaps we won’t lie to get into a theater—but what if a surprise birthday party for a friend requires sly and crafty planning, coordination, and a great deal of deception and misdirection? Can we then channel our dark energies to bring joy to others? Yes, but this can become a slippery slope. If the goal switches to planning a surprise theft, the same skills can harm others.
The dark art has been here all along. Just consider some innovative advertising campaigns deriding a competitor’s product in favor of one’s own: The cola wars, the burger wars, and the coffee wars are all notorious for hinting at the competition’s lower quality, with direct or indirect references. Is this dark? Sure, it’s an underhand way to get through to your undecided consumer. Is it creative? Of course! Should it be used? Definitely—it’s meant to increase your profit in a competitive world.