Certain types of creative activity can help buffer against feelings of anxiety evoked by thinking about death, particularly among those who are searching for meaning in life, according to new research published in Frontiers in Psychology.
“During the COVID-19 outbreak, the public was inevitably exposed to death-related information or situations, which may activate their awareness of mortality and further evoke negative emotional outcomes, such as anxiety and fear,” said study author Xiang Zhou, a professor and vice-dean at Nankai University.
“As creativity researchers, we wanted to investigate whether engaging in creative activities could buffer the anxiety evoked by mortality salience. Although a few research have examined the role of creativity during mortality salience, they reported conflicting findings. Thus, the present study distinguished between benevolent and malevolent creative activities, and introduced search for meaning in life as a moderator.”
Zhou and her colleagues conducted two studies to examine the relationship between creativity and death-induced anxiety.
In Study 1, 168 college students were randomly assigned to either read a news report about the COVID-19 death toll or a news report about the impact of COVID-19 on tourism. The participants were then randomly assigned to either complete a benevolent or malevolent creativity task. In the benevolent creativity task, the researchers asked the participants to brainstorm ideas to help a nonprofit generate revenue. In the malevolent creativity task, the researchers asked the participants to brainstorm ways to leak damaging information about a rival company. Finally, the participants completed a measure of their current level of anxiety.
In Study 2, 221 college students were randomly assigned to either write about their own death or write about experiencing dental pain. They were then randomly assigned to complete the same benevolent or malevolent creativity tasks from Study 1. Participants also completed an assessment of search for meaning in life along with a measure of their current level of anxiety.
The studies provided evidence that benevolent creativity (but not malevolent creativity) could act as a buffer against the anxiety aroused contemplating death.
“The results suggested that engaging in benevolent creative activities (e.g. helping others or protecting others’ interests in original ways) rather than malevolent creative activities (e.g. harming others or damaging others’ interests for self-benefit in original ways) might be an effective way to cope with mortality threat,” Zhou told PsyPost. “Moreover, the anxiety-buffering effect of benevolent creativity was only observed among participants with a higher level of search for meaning in life, indicating that individual difference should also be considered when guiding individuals to engage in creative activities under mortality-salient conditions.”
As far as limitations, Zhou noted that the current research only examined college students. “Further studies could explore the role of creativity in the mortality salience effect among a broader group of participants, such as the elderly or children, to increase the generalizability of the present results,” she said.
“In most empirical research, creativity is viewed as an end goal and is studied as a dependent variable,” Zhou added. “However, with the expansion of creativity research, scholars are increasingly concerned about the potential positive outcomes of creativity. In follow-up research, we will also continue to focus on the crucial role of creativity (including creative activity, creative personality, creative achievement etc.) in mental health and personal growth.”
The study, “Benevolent Creativity Buffers Anxiety Aroused by Mortality Salience: Terror Management in COVID-19 Pandemic“, was authored by Yu-Xin Cui, Xiang Zhou, Chong Zu, Hong-Kun Zhai, Bo-Ren Bai, Yu-Mei Xu, and Duo Li.