Misbehaving: being clever and wicked is a form of creativity

Suppose you forgot it was your partner’s birthday, but you know that they would appreciate the smallest of gestures, say a bouquet. It’s late at night and no florists are open. The cemetery on your way home has recently had a funeral, and you walk across the site and pick up a good-looking bouquet of roses from someone’s grave. You then head home, and the flowers are happily received by your partner.

Would you say that you hurt anyone?

This isn’t so much a moral dilemma as it is a creative misbehaviour. More specifically, it is an instance of the dark side of creativity – the side that few people acknowledge or talk about. Variously referred to as malevolent or negative, dark creativity uses the creative process to do something socially unappealing and guided by self-interest. You might not intend to harm someone else, yet harm is often a byproduct of your actions. In the instance above, you found an original solution (stealing flowers from a graveyard) to a problem (upset partner) that was effective (happy partner).

That is what makes up the crux of creativity – originality and effectiveness in behaviour.

But can we call such an act truly creative? For one thing, it violates moral codes of conduct (stealing); for another, it involves deception (omitting the truth about where you got the flowers).

Laypersons and academics alike have largely viewed creativity as a positive force, a notion challenged by the philosopher and educator Robert McLaren of California State University, Fullerton in 1993. McLaren proposed that creativity had a dark side, and that viewing it without a social or moral lens would lead to limited understanding. As time went on, newer concepts – negative and malevolent creativity – included conceiving original ways to cheat on tests or doing purposeful harm to others, for instance, innovating new ways to execute terrorist attacks.

Take a situation where you want to go to an event but the tickets are sold out. A creative person predisposed to deception and moral flexibility might come up with a solution involving bribing guards or pretending to be an organiser at the event. On the other hand, another creative individual with a more positive mindset might suggest creating a social-media campaign, for or against the event, to gain traction and recognition, and subsequent entry into the event.

The question for me and my academic adviser, psychologist Azizuddin Khan at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, was whether both solutions should be used, and whether both are truly creative. We…

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