Social threat unlocks the dark side of creativity, study finds

People exhibit more malevolent creativity after facing a social threat, according to new research in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

“We all know that our capacity for creativity has brought many positive things: Examples are medication and treatment for diseases, beautiful art, and technology that allows us to live our lives to the fullest,” said study author Matthijs Baas of the University of Amsterdam.

“However, our capacity for creativity has also been applied for much darker uses. Think of the invention of torture practices, new ways to bully others, original ways to commit and conceal fraud. I wanted to know more about what factors drive this much darker side of creativity.”

The researchers used prisoner’s dilemma games to induce a sense of social threat in their study of 192 college students.

In the dilemma, if both players cooperate, they both receive a payoff. But if one cooperates and the other does not, the cooperating player receives the smallest possible payoff, while the defecting player receives the largest.

The researchers manipulated the level of social threat. Participants in the high threat condition could lose a substantial amount of money if the other player defected, while those in the low threat condition could lose only a small amount.

Baas and his colleagues found that participants in the high threat condition tended to come up with more malevolent ideas on how to use a brick than neutral ideas. Similarly, those in the high threat condition tended to come up with more aggressive negotiation tactics.

“When people are threatened by others, they are more motivated to defend themselves and aggress — and they think of more malevolent ideas as a result. So social threat seems to be one factor that is involved in malevolent creativity,” he told PsyPost.

“Our findings are based on simple creativity tasks. Participants thought of novel brick uses and negotiation tactics in a laboratory setting. These brick uses and negotiations tactics were more aggressive under social threat,” Baas added.

“Although this interesting finding sheds some light on the emergence of malevolent creativity, it is a big leap to malevolent creativity in the real world. Surely other factors and processes exist that determine whether someone comes up with, say, a novel terrorist attack (let alone putting this malevolent idea to practice).”

The study, “Why Social Threat Motivates Malevolent Creativity“, was authored by Matthijs Baas, Marieke Roskes, Severine Koch, Yujie Cheng, and Carsten K. W. De Dreu.