Wednesday 27 June 2012

Creativity and Eysenck's Psychoticism trait


Hans J Eysenck (1916-1997) was one of the few psychologists of near-genius ability to engage seriously with the question of genius.

(See his book Genius of 1995).

He regarded the essence of genius as a combination of high intelligence with creativity: the mechanism being that creativity generated the raw material and intelligence provided the evaluation mechanism.

And therefore much of Eysenck's contribution focused on the correlation between the trait of Psychoticism with creativity.


Psychoticism is a trait which is more often moderately high in men than women - and it includes at least three main strands:

1. The 'psychotic' aspect which is seen as a style of thinking characterized by broad field of association between concepts. (The opposite would be a narrowly predictable sequence of thoughts: if you start at A you will always get to B).

This style of thinking may be familiar from recalled dreams where one thing reminds of another thing, similarities are felt between things lacking a tight 'logical' connection, and the train of thought seems loose and unpredictable. It is also found in psychotic illnesses, intoxication, and of course the trance-like state reported by some creative people such as artists and scientists.

This aspect of Psychoticism is pretty much the same thing as Schizotypy.


2. Impulsiveness, spontaneity, desire for rapid gratification. (The opposite is conscientiousness, ability to sustain work at something which is uninteresting, sacrificing present gratification for future gratification.)

This aspect of Psychoticism is pretty much the opposite of Conscientiousness.


3. Emotional detachment, unawareness or indifference to feelings of others, selfishness. (The opposite is empathic tuning-into the emotions of others, sympathy with their feelings, fitting-in with the views of others - not wanting to offend or be ostracized.)

This aspect of Psychoticism is pretty much the opposite of Agreeableness (or Simon Baron Cohen's Empathizing).


Looking across the aspects, it can be seen that moderately high Psychoticism is a pattern of preferences which is suited to genuinely creative thinking which - when combined with high intelligence - may lead to 'breakthoughs' into qualitatively different forms of understanding. In other words: genius.

But it also shows why there is a dark side to genuine creativity, since many of the traits of Psychoticism are awkward or actively undesirable.

The concept of the high Psychoticism genius therefore strikingly resembles the shaman of hunter gatherer societies - respected but feared and often isolated - useful but usually semi-crazy and sometimes actually-crazy. Or the prophets of the Old Testament. Or the mad scientists (some eccentric, some dangerous) of modern popular stories.

These are individuals who we may admire, may be grateful to - but seldom like - and seldom want to be-like.


By contrast, modern mainstream ideas of creativity are sanitized fakes of pseudo-creativity - and usually focus on the personality trait called Openness to Experience: a scale which is (de facto) 'How much do you resemble the stereotypical Leftist intellectual elite member'.

High Openness is a measure of highbrow interests, love of the new (neophilia), and all those modernist concepts of art as being 'radical', 'challenging', 'subversive' etc.

Openness-'creativity' is about being anti-traditional, anti-Christian, anti-'conventional' - it is bohemian rebellion.

The High Openness person is a culture vulture whose idea of creativity is someone like Malcolm Gladwell. A high empathizing, highly agreeable, conscientious pick-and-mix, inversion and re-combination of pre-existing ideas constrained implicitly within the Leftist world-view.

This is the kind of Openness-'creativity' promoted by educationalists and government bureaucracies, subsidized, and lionized by high status highbrow media with profiles and groups of the Ten most-promising geniuses of today, and 'cool' viral video web lectures.


In sum, the fake creativity of Openness may be charming; while real Psychoticsm creativity is not.

Indeed, Openness-creativity has all the advantages over genuine creativity: except that it is a parasitic fake.


Eysenck's Psychoticism is - in academic circles - generally supposed to have been superceded; and in terms of academic fashion it has been superseded.

For one thing high Psychoticism is too rare among the usual psychology study populations (i.e. university students) so that its distribution is positively skewed (mostly low scorers).

And there are flaws in Eysenck's scale - especially that he does not include direct questions on the 'psychotic' aspects of Psychoticism - which is confusing and potentially distorting.

But the basic concept of Psychoticism is substantially correct and important - as would be expected from a man who was pretty much a high-Psychoticism genius himself - unlike the high-Openness personality psychologists who followed after him.


And indeed academics themselves, including scientists, have become almost uniformly high-Openness types. Those high in trait Psychoticism are filtered-out by a prolonged and multi-stage selection process that - at every level - explicitly favours women (lower in trait Psychoticism), and implicitly selects those high in Conscientiousness and Agreeableness; while being indifferent to, or punishing, genuine creativity and the impulsive and autonomous behaviours necessary to it.

The situation in the modern university or research institutions is therefore better in every way and for everybody - except that it is a parasitic fake.



dearieme said...

I used to irk my colleagues in the following way: in academic committees sundry unusual ideas for solving problems would occur to me as people maundered on - and so, at some suitable gap in the tedium, I would explain my lovely new insight. It would usually be greeted by revulsion - an unusual idea seemed always to be deeply unwelcome. Often the response was quite explicit: "I've never heard of that before" intended as a conclusive put-down. It seemed - and seems - to me a pathetic response from people claiming to be scientists, and the response from engineers was only a little better.

Perhaps the big picture of which you complain can be glimpsed even in tiny snapshots.

Bruce Charlton said...

@d - "Perhaps the big picture of which you complain can be glimpsed even in tiny snapshots."

Indeed - in fact the 'big picture' is, in its essence, precisely an abstracted aggregate of such snapshots.

dearieme said...

The other day we were culling our books (lucky old charity shop!) and I stumbled across all my old Eysenck paperbacks. Perhaps I'll dip into them next winter.

One observation: every now and then I find someone on the web enthusing about some brand new result in the psychology of intellect or personality - and without fail it seems to be vrtually identical to some result that Eysenck discussed back in the 60s. Very odd.

Thursday said...

Openness to experience is necessary for creativity. After all if you want to generate new ideas, you have to be open to new ideas. But it isn't sufficient.

There is a great debate between Geoffrey Miller and Satoshi Kanazawa on Asian creativity. Miller seems hung up on the big 5 and thinks that because Asian openness scores are the same as Europeans' that Asians will eventually be as creative as whites. For once, I agree with Kanazawa.

Thursday said...

In the arts we seem to have bifurcated into two groups, of which each has only part of what is necessary to produce great art.

There is some evidence to suggest that religious people are more responsive to both beauty and awe. Yet they also have an aversion for disgusting things, which as Milan Kundera has noted is a recipe for kitsch. Hence, we get praise songs, Thomas Kinkade and all those awful statues of the Madonna.

On the other hand the mainstream arty crowd tends to produce work that is either overintellectualized or else outright disgusting. Examples are too numerous to mention.

In either case, you get bad art. Low openness people tend to produce kitsch and purely high openness people tend to produce soulless or outright degrading art.

I will note that having been inside an Orthodox church a couple times, that the tradition of icon painting hasn't seemed to have succumbed to this bifurcation.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Thursday - Disagree.

What you call kitsch may be bad art - or it may be good art - it depends on the talent of the artist. If the artist is incompetent, or of limited sensibility it will be bad. But if it is trying to be beautiful it will be art, and bad art may still have value - indeed it usually does so long as it is sincere and modest.

What the mainstream arty crowd do isn't art, it isn't trying to be art - it isn't trying to be beautiful, sublime or anything like that. Typically it is anti-art - subversive or inversional of art. Essentialy it is an exercise in re-labelling. In strict terms it is evil - because it is destructive of good.

Of course there are transitional and mixed works - for example James Joyce's Ulysses (which I have read numerous times). This has (a few) bits which are beautiful and supremely skilful art - and bits (most of it, and in its general effect) which are anti-art, subversive of art, deliberately ruining of art, snide undercutting of art.

(Something similar applies to Joyce's disciple Beckett).

So the dying embers of great real art - early 20th century modernism - tended to be extremely gifted individuals (Joyce, Lawrence, Picasso, Schoenberg, Stravinsky) who turned-against art, skilfully killed it from the inside, and sucked the predigested juice from the corpse.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Thursday - I recall the piece by Geoffrey Miller. It was probably the worst thing, the only really wrong thing, I have read by GM - who I rate very highly indeed. He is personally brave and honest, but is incrementally recovering from an extremely Left wing position, and this seriously interfered with his evaluations in this piece.

My rejection of Openness in fact comes as a reaction from reading Miller's book Spent - which is well worth a look.

Thursday said...

Well, I was making the point that great art requires serious engagement with dissonance, darkness and ugliness to create contrast and tension. The art popular among religious people these days lacks these tensions, which is why it fails.

The inclusion of dissonance and ugliness comes with diminishing returns past a certain point though, and, of course, to make these things the primary focus of art is utterly perverse.

Thursday said...

Yes, Miller's thesis in Spent that only the big 5 and IQ matter was really annoying.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Thursday - "Well, I was making the point that great art requires serious engagement with dissonance, darkness and ugliness to create contrast and tension. The art popular among religious people these days lacks these tensions, which is why it fails."

Well, maybe - but compared with what? Probably the most popular literature among religious people is Tolkien' LotR - which certainly includes all that stuff.

But there just isn't any great art being made these days, whether in music, art or literature; whether religious or not; whether obsessed with dd&u or not...

steve c said...

1for what it is worth, I have been blessed to hear about a dozen sermons over the course of the last 30 years which were, or so it seemed to me, fully the equivalent of the best music (what Schnabel called music that is better than it can be played) .... I realize that every age has great sermons, but it is a data point worth considering that our times still have that, at least = also, I think that the humility that comes to the talented performer who realizes that he does not live in an age of creative musical genius makes the secondary artists - the singers, the violinists, the trombone teachers, etc., - pour more into their art than their arrogant=by=association grandparents did(the ones who did not try as hard because they played for verdi when they were younger so however they played was the right way to play) = and our humble generation of musicians may somehow lead to a more inspiring future generation that is comfortable with creative musical beauty if they pray for it

Confederate said...

Hi, your discussion makes me feel less alone. I am doing some work around the questions raised here and hope you can tell me what you think of my ideas:

Bruce Charlton said...

@confederate - looks interesting - please could you e-mail me a copy?

Thursday said...

But there just isn't any great art being made these days, whether in music, art or literature; whether religious or not; whether obsessed with dd&u or not...

There is actually some pretty good art being made today. It isn't on the level of Wordsworth or Tchaikovsky, let alone Shakespeare or Bach, but its not nothing. And the best of it is made mostly by secular liberals. The kitschy religious stuff isn't even close.

But the better the art, the less lefty or liberal the artist tends to be, certainly by today's standards.

Also, great art isn't necessarily "obsessed" with dd&u, but it does deal with it.

Anyway, I mainly came back over here to recommend that you read Jonah Lehrer's Imagine, which has a nice summary of how certain parts of the brain, which also seem to be involved in regulating proper social behaviour, also seem to inhibit creativity.

Thursday said...

Probably one of the reasons that great creativity is so rare is that you need to combine openness and the desire to go your own way with great respect for tradition. Ever notice how the politics of the people at the very top of most fields tends to be considerably more conservative than the great mass of people in that field. As you have noted, for a psychologist, Geoffrey Miller is a raging right winger.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Thursday - Just for calibration, could you name some one person who fits your description of a pretty good artist in the past 25 years in classical music, poetry (English language), the novel, and painting (these are areas where I feel competent to judge).

I don't intend to shoot down your choices - indeed I don't doubt that there are such persons, because 'pretty good' is not too high a bar to clear - but it'd be interesting to see the list, and compare it with what springs to mind for me.

stephen c said...

I would be interested in that list, too, but I must admit that as someone who is not very very rich or even rich I do not have a good idea of the actual current state of painting and sculpture - I could be wrong, but I believe that the 3 or 4 million millionaires who are our contemptoraries must include several dozen genuine artistically inclined patrons who insist that the artists they hire(for portraits and sculptures that are not shared with the public) not follow the via mediocrita that is described ad nauseam by chroniclers of transgressive modern art (although I have seen some heartbreakingly good landscapes in art magazines that I browsed for free at local bookstores)