If You’re a Writer You May Be a Psychopath

Authoring a gory murder mystery novel doesn’t make you a psycho, right? According to the findings of researchers in the Philippines, the answer is… maybe. Led by psychologist Adrianne John R. Galang, the researchers conducted a three-part study and found that creative people have psychopathic personality traits.

In the first study, male and female participants, many of whom were college-aged, took two surveys. The first measured the extent to which they exhibit personality traits known as the “Dark Triad” (new title for a dystopian YA series?) — Machiavellianism, Narcissism, and Psychopathy — and the second assessed their levels of creative achievement in ten domains: visual arts, music, creative writing, dance, drama, architecture, humor, scientific discovery, invention, and culinary. Ratings ranged from “mundane” (“I have taken lessons in this area”) to “eminent” (“My work has been critiqued in national publications”). Since answers were self-reported, the researchers statistically corrected for “skewedness” (i.e., overestimating or underestimating proficiency).

The psychologists found that both Narcissism and Psychopathy were positively correlated with levels of creative achievement. Since Narcissists exhibit “self-enhancing tendencies,” however, it’s tricky to say for sure whether they actually perform better creatively or simply rank themselves more highly.

In the second study, the researchers gave another set of participants surveys to assess the relationship between creative achievement and three psychopathic traits: Boldness (“the tendency to be less vulnerable to fear or stress”), Meanness (“the capacity for aggression and being unempathetic”), and Disinhibiton (a trait that “captures the impulsive behavior of psychopaths”). Participants indicated the extent to which they agreed with items like “I enjoy pushing people around” (Meanness) and “I can get over things that would traumatize others” (Boldness).

Participants’ levels of creative achievement were positively correlated with their levels of “psychopathic Boldness.” Achievement in the humor domain was linked with both Boldness and Meanness. Creative writers, on the other hand, are nice people: achievement in creative writing was negatively correlated with Meanness. In other words, good writers don’t like pushing people around… well, except their characters.

Finally, the researchers investigated the link between psychopathy and one’s capacity for divergent thinking — coming up with clever, uncommon, and unexpected solutions to problems and uses for objects. They measured the electrical conductivity of participants’ skin (a measure of anxiety) while participants “engaged in a gambling task.” Participants who showed themselves to be divergent thinkers also tended to exhibit the physiological calmness, or emotional disinhibition, characteristic of psychopaths.

These results, though, don’t suggest that artists are closeted serial killers who might come unhinged at any second. The researchers’ main takeaway is that Boldness, which relates to “high stress-tolerance and low anxiety,” is a key component of the independent, risky thinking that creativity involves. They recommend that we foster “creativity in both educational and professional settings” by encouraging Boldness “while seeking to mitigate the more harmful forms of Disinhibition.” This seems like good advice for writers, and other creatives, to apply on a personal level: when in doubt, stay bold.

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