The Focused Arrogance of the Highly Creative

New research links creativity with lower levels of honesty and humility.
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New research links creativity with lower levels of honesty and humility.

Creative geniuses have long had a reputation for arrogance. “When I paint, the ocean roars,” proclaimed the self-satisfied surrealist Salvador Dali. “Others merely paddle in their bath.”

Newly published research suggests the connection between egotism and inventiveness is more than anecdotal. Participants in a large study who consider themselves creative, and regularly participate in creative activities, scored low on a personality test measuring honesty and humility.

The study, just published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, was conducted by a research team led by psychologist Paul Silvia of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. The reseachers note that previous studies have failed to find consensus on the connection between creativity and agreeableness, one of the classic “big five” personality dimensions.

Some have found creativity is associated with low levels of agreeableness, while others have suggested just the opposite. (Another of the “big five” personality traits — openness to experience — has been consistently linked with high levels of creativity.)

The researchers decided to explore this subject using a different, arguably more subtle tool: the HEXACO Personality Index. This method of looking at personality refines the rather broad category of “agreeableness,” replacing it with two separate dimensions: “Honesty-Humility” and “Agreeableness vs. Anger.” After answering questions about their attitudes and behavior, people are assigned a point on each of those scales.

Those who score low on the Honesty-Humility index “tend to feel a strong sense of self-importance, to be motivated by material gain, to feel tempted to bend laws for personal profit, and to flatter others when this may be successful,” the scale’s authors write. Not particularly attractive traits, to be sure, but more manipulative than malevolent.

In contrast, those who score low on the Agreeableness vs. Anger scale “tend to feel anger readily in response to mistreatment, to bear grudges against those who have insulted or deceived them, to be rather critical of others' shortcomings, and to be stubborn in defending their point of view.” This describes a prickly person, one whose egotism emerges in combative relationships with others.

Do highly creative people tend to fit one or both of those descriptions? To find out, the researchers conducted an experiment featuring 1,304 undergraduates enrolled at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, and California State University, San Bernardino. The participants, primarily young adults (median age 21), represented a wide range of ethnicities.

All completed an online survey that measured both their personality traits (using the HEXACO index) and their self-reported level of creativity. They were asked detailed questions about their level of training and achievement in various creative domains — how often they participate in certain creative endeavors, including arts, crafts, creative writing and drama, and how highly they rate their own creative abilities.

Silvia and his colleagues report that rankings on the agreeableness-anger scale “had a near-zero effect” on creativity. In contrast, they write, “people lower in honesty-humility had higher creativity scores.”

“This finding is consistent with past work on arrogance,” they write, “which is captured by the pretentiousness and immodesty defined by low honesty-humility.”

Silvia and his colleagues concede their study has its limitations: The participants skewed young, and creativity was measured in their own self-reports. Follow-up studies will presumably include people representing a wider age range whose creativity is assessed by outside observers.

Nevertheless, the researchers appear to have made an important distinction. If their findings hold up, it suggests highly creative people may not be humble, but they also aren’t hostile.

Daring to take imaginative leaps and putting them before the public takes a certain ego; seeing them through to completion or implementation requires an ability to get along with others. Perhaps the most successful artists, thinkers and entrepreneurs possess both qualities.

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