The Creativity of Anger

Hi, all. I was reading articles on Flipboard today and thought this Wired article was interesting for our class. In particular, I thought the following passages from the article made me think about how we work, how we think about creativity, standards, etc….


But maybe this is a big mistake. Maybe Steve Jobs was on to something when he refused to hide away his disappointment or displeasure. That, at least, is the takeaway of a new paper by Matthijs Baas, Carsten De Dreu, and Bernard Nijstad in The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Their first experiment was straightforward, demonstrating that anger was better at promoting “unstructured thinking” on a creativity task, at least when compared to sadness or a neutral mood. The second experiment elicited anger directly in the subjects, before asking them to brainstorm on ways to improve the condition of the natural environment. Once again, people who felt angry generated more ideas. These ideas were also deemed more original, as they were thought of by less than 1 percent of the subjects.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that anger is a cure-all, or that nastiness is always wise. For one thing, anger is exhausting and “resource depleting.” Although angry subjects initially generated more ideas, their performance quickly declined. By the end of the idea-generation session, they were performing at roughly the same level as everyone else.

Why does anger have this effect on the imagination? I think the answer is still unclear – we’re only beginning to understand how moods influence cognition. But my own sense is that anger is deeply stimulating and energizing. It’s a burst of adrenaline that allows us to dig a little deeper, to get beyond the usual superficial free-associations. In contrast, when our mood is neutral or content, there is no incentive to embrace unfamiliar possibilities, to engage in mental risks or brash new concepts. (Why rock the boat?) The absence of criticism has kept us in the same place. And this is why anger makes it easier to think different.


What do you think?



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About Rebecca K Britt

I'm Rebecca, an Associate Professor. I enjoy research & teaching, and painting. My husband and I love video games and traveling!

11 responses to “The Creativity of Anger”

  1. kylejnewton says :

    I disagree with the overall thought of this article. While I do agree that criticism and critiquing work and rejecting it if it is not acceptable is valuable and necessary, I don’t believe that being angry or nasty towards people is the best or only way to do this. Some people may react positively to anger or harsh negativity, but I am more inclined to believe that this isn’t the majority of people. By not accepting just anything and everything that came across his desk, Jobs helped make Apple what it is today by pioneering new, exciting and unthought of products, but I don’t think anger is the only way to achieve that success.

    • Rebecca Ivic says :

      Fig, I’m inclined to agree. There seems to be a fascination with the persona of Jobs and his controversial attitude, but I just think it’s hard to do.

  2. jhockersmith13 says :

    Although I don;t agree with being nasty to people, I think it is very interesting how we get more creative as a natural response to getting angry. Perhaps it’s because we naturally don’t like being angry so our brain scrambles for anything that has potential to get us out of that situation. Any thoughts?

    • Rebecca Ivic says :

      Oh, another interesting point. I do think people are motivated by goals, and we naturally feel intense emotions when we’re particularly vested in a project. If something isn’t working out, we try to reduce feelings of uncertainty.

  3. meshiach0machshevi says :

    There is absolutely nothing “straightforward” about a study like that. In fact, the description of the study is so unspecific as to preclude drawing any valid conclusions from it.

    They “elicited anger directly in the subjects”? Okay, what exactly did they do? And did they do it to all of them, or just one experimental group? “People who felt angry generated more ideas”. As in, people in the group to whom they did the anger treatment, or did they try to make judgments about how angry people were? Did they brainstorm individually or in groups? Did each group contain only “angry” people or only “unangry” people, or were people mixed in groups of angry and unangry? And just who was the judge of who came up with “more ideas”, which were “more original” or who was being “better” at “unstructured thinking”?

    As effective as it may be at producing sensational news and selling copy to make sweeping pronouncements on the basis of experiments which had to have included a heavy dollop of the researcher’s own subjective judgment, it’s not very honest. To be able to effectively draw conclusions, you’d need to know what the researchers actually did. Oh wait, you can’t; the link takes you to a screen where they’re trying to get you to pay money for the paper. Oh well.

    He who would read anything into this article, beware.

    • Rebecca Ivic says :

      Be sure you are using the term “study” correctly. This article isn’t about a particular study, although they do cite current research. If you read the article and consider the source (Wired), this article isn’t geared towards academics or those involved in research, but the layperson who might find the contents interesting.

      Certainly, in a proper peer-reviewed journal, an actual study would contain all of the information you described, including an explicitly stated methodology, research questions, and so on.

      Take this article for what it is– a ‘Wired’ piece, not academic research.

  4. kaileenkraemer says :

    I also disagree with the overall thought of this article. I know that I do not personally perform my best creatively when I am angry- all of the thoughts that stem from my anger are the same, typically angst-y thoughts that you see in many modern pieces of artwork. This article also confuses me since we read the chapter called “Channel Their Inner Zen” from our course text. It seems to contradict everything in that chapter, which I think was a particularly strong chapter out of what we have read so far. Overall, I’d say this thought is still false…needs to be proven further in order to convince me.

    • Rebecca Ivic says :

      The premise of this article is more about Jobs’ personality and the concept on a more fundamental level and less about the Gallo text. You make a good point by noting that Gallo’s observations about Jobs’ presentational tactics are interpreted and may not reflect total reality with certainty. The premise of the Inner Zen chapter is important in application of our own presentations (and, I might extend that to productivity…) but we certainly have to consider the source, like you point out!

  5. burnscp says :

    Personally, I think there is a lot of motivation to come from anger. When you get angry your body is operating in an elevated state, and it could help you focus more, take in more stimuli and channel that into more possibilities. If you’re getting more detail from your world because you’re paying more attention to it, then you have more data to formulate scenarios from, leading you to be more creative.

  6. kingkyle35 says :

    I find that anger mostly narrows my mind. I agree with the “burst of adrenaline” the brain may receive from it, but my creativity springs from the open mind, or my optimistic mood. When angry in any way, my productivity will fall because i have built up emotions that would stand in the way of my clear mind and reaching my overall goal.

  7. brianbritt says :

    Hmm, interesting. I just got around to reading this opinion piece myself, and it certainly brings some curious ideas to bear.

    I’m inclined to agree with those who are skeptical of the link between creativity and anger. My own work generally suffers when I’m ridden with rage, and it sounds like many of you have held the same experiences. Perhaps the overall idea behind this link stems from how some creative individuals (writers, artists, etc.) have been known to channel their own depression and angst into their work. However, there’s a big difference between sadness, a decidedly negative emotion (but still very much an emotion), and anger, which is often more apt to make one lash out unproductively instead of developing something from inspiration.

    With that said, it’s not out of the question that anger may have some benefits. For instance, it’s possible that a bit of animosity may lower one’s inhibitions that might normally stymie creative work. Furthermore, anyone familiar with the concept of “groupthink” knows that, in group projects, when everyone just smiles and nods at the first idea presented, group outcomes are often uninspired. Eventually, someone has to step up and challenge a flawed idea (or just present a better one) so that the group can improve upon their ideas and take advantage of the fact that they’re in a group with multiple people who have a diverse range of skills and ideas.

    At the same time, I hesitate to consider the studies cited by Lehrer as sufficient support for the anger-creativity connection. Rather, I would side with Akinola (who Lehrer noted — but only at the very bottom of his piece) who said that individuals that receive some negative feedback will see that as a signal that more work is required to attain success. Reversing that logic, it may be that excessive positive feedback instills some lethargy in individuals. If I achieve my goal without even trying, what’s the motivation to expend more effort the next time? Unless the individual recognizes a “next level” which will be more challenging than the current task at which he/she succeeded (such as a minor league baseball player who must continue improving in order to make it as a major leaguer), and unless success at that “next level” is judged to be worth the extra effort, there’s no reason to push oneself harder than necessary.

    Similarly, I think there’s such a thing as too much negative feedback, as well. Imagine if you are consistently told that you’re falling short of “success.” Eventually it may appear that success is unattainable. Just as there’s no point in working harder if you’ve already reached the definition of success, there’s little point in devoting extra effort if it seems like you have no hope of ever getting there. In each case, the two extremes leave the individual with no way to continue working toward greater successes. I believe there’s a balance to be struck between overly harsh criticism and overly glowing feedback — if we really want to improve, we need to take pride in the steps we’ve taken but also be aware of the path that still lies ahead. That, in my opinion, is the secret to good criticism.

    With that in mind, I’d love to see a study that deals with more long-term strings of criticism (and perhaps which includes tangible benefits, or the illusion of such benefits, when “success” is attained, so that subjects have a reason to want to succeed). Consider a study with, say, five rounds of feedback between six rounds of work. I imagine that those subjects receiving all positive or all negative feedback would devote significantly less effort to their projects in the final phase than those who received more balanced feedback. Granted, it might be difficult to get approval for such research, as receiving negative feedback repeatedly might be damaging to the psyches of those subjects, but in terms of outcomes I think that would illuminate the need for balanced feedback. Whether we think we’re the best around or we believe that it’s hopeless to keep trying, once it appears that there’s no way to keep moving forward we’re less likely to try to take that next step.

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