Creative Genius or Psychosis?
April 23, 2013 Leave a Comment
As I watched John Ronson’s TED Talk, Strange Answers to the Psychopath Test, I began to wonder about the connection between creativity and psychopathy. Throughout history, there has been a high incidence of documented psychotic behavior among highly creative individuals. In the literary domain, writers like Sylvia Plath and Ernest Hemingway were plagued by psychotic afflictions. While in the artistic domain, Vincent van Gogh is remembered as a tortured genius who cut off his own ear.
In our society’s desire to remove ambiguity and label individuals as psychotic, sane, creative, or ordinary, perhaps we’ve missed the point. Ronson may have been onto something when he talked about how the psychiatric profession could be taking a natural human behavior and labeling it as a mental disorder. In fact, when you compare the traits of highly creative people with those of psychotic individuals, emotional intelligence is the fine line that distinguishes between a creative genius and a psychotic madman.
Aristotle once said, “No great genius has ever been without some divine madness.” While research has revealed a relationship between creative genius and psychopathic behaviors, it does not necessarily mean highly creative people are psychotic. The ability for an individual to empathize with others, to understand others, and to act “human” can turn seemingly psychopathic behaviors into productive creative energy.
Creativity and psychosis are intertwined. In looking at the lives of Plath, Hemingway, and van Gogh, they all suffered from extended bouts with depression and were also all highly creative. While investigating the link between creativity and psychotic behavior, studies found creativity and psychosis share a similar origin, or biological link. Therefore creative people and psychotic people have common personality traits and thinking styles. However, it is the individual’s level of control over his or her thought process that differentiates psychotic thinking from creative thinking. Whereas creative thinking is described as “purposeful and rational,” psychotic thinking is described as “haphazard and nonsensical.” In short, creative individuals tend to be in control of their thinking process while psychotic individuals lack control.
More importantly, psychoticism is characterized by a lack of empathy, glibness, cunning, and manipulative actions; while creative individuals are able to trace the roots of their genius to emotional intelligence. The ability to empathize with others and interact in a socially acceptable manner separates psychotic individuals from creative individuals. Unless highly creative individuals possess strong emotional intelligence, their natural persistence and tenacity can easily propel them into psychosis.
This leads to Ronson’s notion that capitalism rewards psychotic behavior. In his talk, Ronson introduced the idea of corporate psychopathy. He described how 4% of CEOs and business leaders can be classified as psychopaths. This classification is based on an individual’s personality traits as identified by The Hare Psychopathy Checklist. Ronson provided examples from Enron and corporate restructuring engineer, Al Dunlap (best known for downsizing 35% of the Scott Paper workforce), to support the theory of corporate psychopathy.
Yet, there is an untold story. For each example of a corporate psychopath, there are many more examples of corporate creative geniuses who were able to tap into their emotional intelligence to apply creativity for the benefit of society. Take Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, or Bill Gates, CEO of Microsoft. Both have accomplished great achievements while supporting human rights and worthy causes. While Schultz and Gates used their creative genius for good, Enron and Dunlap applied their creativity to produce negative outcomes.
So, is it a foregone conclusion that capitalism rewards psychotic behavior?
To accept this viewpoint means believing there isn’t anything we can do to shape human behavior. Yet, our perceptions of the world and the actions we take are based on two things – our genetic makeup and our experiences. To shape how corporate leaders behave, we need to change experiences. What we need to do is teach emotional intelligence. And, yes emotional intelligence can be learned.
Scientists have proven that teaching emotional intelligence positively impacts outcomes. In a series of training sessions, participants took part in lectures, role playing, discussions and readings geared towards helping them improve the understanding, analysis, expression, and regulation of emotions. Participants were assessed on their emotional intelligence before, immediately after, and six months after the training. Results showed those who participated in training were able to significantly improve their emotional intelligence.
Think of the strides we could make if our educational system focused on emotional skills, as well as, academic skills. While emotional intelligence is a burgeoning field, experts like psychologist, Daniel Goleman, stress how emotional and social abilities are the distinguishing characteristics of outstanding leaders. The abilities to perceive emotions in yourself and others, to use emotion to aid thinking, to understand emotional meaning, and to use emotion appropriately are key to turning potentially destructive psychopathic behaviors into creative genius.
Rather than sit back and assume capitalism and psychotic behavior are the new normal, we can take action. We have the ability to shape future leaders who possess both the creative ability and the emotional intelligence to leave the world a better place.