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For Some, Anger Inspires Creativity

Want to get those creative juices flowing? Try having someone scowl at you.
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Countless ideas have been offered to help stimulate one’s creativity. Daydream. Brainstorm with others. Follow your intuition.

Or simply sit passively as someone speaks to you in an angry tone of voice.

Oddly enough, the latter approach appears to work, at least for certain people. That’s the conclusion of a new study from the Netherlands.

Writing in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, a research team led by University of Amsterdam psychologist Gerben Van Kleef describes an experiment involving 63 undergraduates. To begin, each filled out an 11-item “personal need for structure scale,” in which they rate the degree to which they agreed with such statements as “I become uncomfortable when the rules in a situation are not clear.”

“Individuals scoring on the low end of the scale are more inclined to search for and incorporate new information when making judgments,” the researchers write, “whereas people on the high end strive to maintain simple structures.” In psychological jargon, the first group exhibits high epistemic motivation, the second group low epistemic motivation.

Next, the participants performed two variations on a standard creativity test: They were given eight minutes to write down as many uses as they could come up with for a potato, and an unlimited time to think of as many ways as possible to use a brick. In between those two sessions, they viewed a video clip in which an actor read a list of instructions, telling them “the more ideas the better,” “the more unusual the idea the better” and “combine and improve your ideas.”

Half the participants saw a version of the video in which the actor was emotionless. The other half saw a version in which “he frowned a lot, spoke with an angry and irritable tone of voice, clenched his fists and looked stern.”

His palpable annoyance affected different people in different ways. The researchers found exposure to the angry man increased the creativity of participants with high epistemic motivation (those relatively open to new information), but decreased it for those with low epistemic motivation (those with a strong need for structure).

“Individuals with low epistemic motivation are less likely to consider the task-relevant implications of others’ anger,” the researchers note. “Rather, they develop negative reactions toward their co-worker, which leads to disengagement and lower performance.”

Further analysis found that “among individuals with high epistemic motivation, expressions of anger also increased relative originality — that is, the number of unique ideas relative to the total number of ideas generated. This indicates that expressions of anger do not just lead individuals to generate more ideas, but also to generate more original ideas.”

So, if you’re a supervisor trying to inspire creativity on the part of your staff, it would clearly help to understand each of their personalities before deciding who would benefit from your sharply expressed displeasure. And, the researchers add, it would also be wise to save your potentially inspiring irritation for the right moment.

“Given that variables such as time pressure or environmental noises have been found to decrease epistemic motivation,” they write, “these findings suggest that expressions of anger are unlikely to increase creativity under such conditions.”