Creativity is generally accepted as a positive attribute, but is it always? A study published in Brain and Cognition explores malevolent creativity, a form of creativity based on hurting others, and possible neurological explanations for it.
Malevolent creativity is a type of ingenuity used to cause deliberate mental, physical, or emotional harm on another individual. People high in this type of creativity are manipulative and malicious, working toward antisocial goals. Examples of malevolent creativity can range from lying and harassment to terrorism and torture. It has been linked to other negative traits, such as psychopathy and Machiavellianism. Despite this, little is understood about the neurocognitive basis of malevolent creativity, which is what this study seeks to address.
For their study, Corinna M. Perchtold-Stefan and colleagues utilized 60 participants recruited online and through college campuses to serve as their sample. The sample had an even gender split and participants ranged in ages from 19 to 31 years old. Exclusion criteria included drug use, psychotropic medication, psychiatric history, and more.
Participants listened to four sound recordings, each 90 seconds long, portraying cheerfulness, despair, anger, and neutral in a randomized order. During each emotional sound clip, EEG recording was completed. Additionally, participants completed a test on malevolent creativity, where they came up with revenge ideas for different scenarios, and completed self-report measures on negative affect, depressive symptoms, and affect during the audio clips.
Results showed that people higher on malevolent creativity experienced a lessening of emotional experience when listening to someone’s anger, as shown by greater increases of prefrontal-posterior coupling on the EEG. People who scored high on malevolent creativity showed decreases in prefrontal-posterior coupling when listening to the recording of someone’s desperate crying, indicating being affected by that emotion.
Blunted response to anger could be an adaptive trait for people who engage in malevolent creativity, as it may allow for more risks and less fear of retaliation. Additionally, the decreased coupling in response to the sound of crying could indicate pleasure derived from hearing a person’s pain, a tendency that previous research would suggest would be related to malevolent creativity.
“Individuals high in malevolent creativity showed increased EEG coherence and thus, greater emotional detachment during sound clips signaling angry aggression, possibly indicating that they are unperturbed by the potential consequences of their malevolent actions,” the researchers explained. “Conversely, individuals who were skilled in generating a large pool of malevolent creative ideas in order to sabotage or take revenge on others displayed decreased EEG coherence during others’ desperate crying, indicating that they may take pleasure in others’ adversity.”
This study took novel steps into understanding malevolent creativity. Despite this, there are limitations to note. One such limitation is that other negative traits, such as psychopathy and Machiavellianism were not controlled for. Additionally, the malevolent creativity measure may not translate to indicate likelihood of participating in real-life actions that would constitute malevolent creativity.
“With research on affective correlates on malevolent creativity still sparse, the present study offers first insights into social-emotional brain functions that may partly explain individuals’ potential for malevolent creative ideation,” the researchers concluded.
The study, “Enjoying others’ distress and indifferent to threat? Changes in prefrontal posterior coupling during social-emotional processing are linked to malevolent creativity“, was authored by Corinna M. Perchtold-Stefan, Andreas Fink, Christian Rominger, Enikő Szabó, and Ilona Papousek