By March 7, 2011 Read More →

Creativity and Contradiction

Cognitive psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman explores creativity and contradiction in this recent article in

“Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)”
— Walt Whitman

In the article “The confusing legacy of Michael Jackson,” Todd Leopold discusses the perplexing combination of seemingly contradictory traits displayed by Michael Jackson. In explaining his many sides, Jackson biographer J. Randy Taraborelli essentially throws his hands up in the air in exasperation as he tries to make sense of the apparent contradictions:

I think that when you’re talking about Michael Jackson and you try to analyze him, it’s like analyzing electricity, you know? It exists, but you don’t have a clue as to how it works.

Creativity researchers aren’t so confused. They have long-ago accepted the fact that creative people are complex. Almost by definition, creativity is complex. Creative thinking is influenced by many traits, behaviors, and sociocultural factors that come together in one person. It would be surprising if all of these factors didn’t sometimes, or even most of the time, appear to contradict one another.

As creativity researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi notes in his 1996 article for Psychology Today entitled “The Creative Personality,” creative people “show tendencies of thought and action that in most people are segregated. They contain contradictory extremes; instead of being an “individual,” each of them is a “multitude.”

To me, some of the most fascinating contrasts are those found in creative performers — those who are constantly on stage and in the public eye. Out of Csikszentmihaly’s list of 10 complex personality traits of creative people, which were based on interviews with a wide variety of creative people, I think these three are the most relevant to creative performers:

Creative people have a great deal of physical energy, but they’re also often quiet and at rest. They work long hours, with great concentration, while projecting an aura of freshness and enthusiasm…This does not mean that creative people are hyperactive, always “on.” In fact, they rest often and sleep a lot. The important thing is that they control their energy; it’s not ruled by the calendar, the dock, an external schedule. When necessary, they can focus it like a laser beam; when not, creative types immediately recharge their batteries. They consider the rhythm of activity followed by idleness or reflection very important for the success of their work.

Creative people tend to be both extroverted and introverted. We’re usually one or the other, either preferring to be in the thick of crowds or sitting on the sidelines and observing the passing show. In fact, in psychological research, extroversion and introversion are considered the most stable personality traits that differentiate people from each other and that can be reliability measured. Creative individuals, on the other hand, seem to exhibit both traits simultaneously.

Creative people’s openness and sensitivity often exposes them to suffering and pain, yet also to a great deal of enjoyment… Being alone at the forefront of a discipline also leaves you exposed and vulnerable.

These three seeming contradictions — energy/rest, extroversion/introversion, and openness/sensitivity — are not separate phenomena but are intimately related to one another and along with other traits form the core of the creative performer’s personality.

All three are also linked to what Elaine Aron refers to as a highly sensitive personality (HSP). HSP’s make up 15-20 percent of the general population and tend to be more aware than others of subtleties, get more easily overwhelmed when things get too intense or there is too much sensory input, are easily affected by other’s moods, and are deeply creative and moved by arts and music. Some of the most creative people have very high levels of sensitivity.

A recent study illustrates this point. Psychologist Jennifer O. Grimes went to three major summer metal rock tours, including one of the largest heavy metal/hard rock festivals in the world — “Ozzfest.” Talk about extroverted performers! Grimes interviewed 21 musicians associated with signed touring acts in an isolated room backstage for approximately 20-25 minutes.

Behind the curtain, how did these hard rock musicians describe themselves? Below are some of Jennifer’s impressions (for a fuller summary, see here).

Introversion / Extroversion

  • All participants showed interest in physical activities but also reported requiring “alone time.”
  • Most participants reported “overthinking everything” and being hypercritical, exhibiting critical attention to detail and a careful method of planning everything.
  • Those familiar only with the subjects’ stage persona believed the subjects to be friendly, bold and approachable. The acquaintances who were able to respond to Grimes’ interview questionnaire reported that the subjects were not approachable or appeared to hold a condescending view of others until one became better acquainted with the individual. Those closer to the musicians thought they were warm, friendly, calm and pleasant.
  • The introverts in her sample seemed adept at using introversion and extroversion in various facades to manipulate their appearances to the various circles of friends, acquaintances and others. As Grimes puts it, musicians were adept at “juggling multiple faces” (I really like this way of phrasing it!).
  • Many of Grimes’s participants felt as though they were often misunderstood or perceived in a negative light, sometimes due to shyness.

Openness / Sensitivity

  • The musicians in Grimes’s sample reported being in the zone onstage, and being able to “tune out” external stimuli unrelated to the task. At the same time, Grimes found a lot of the musicians reported a heightened sensitivity to their surroundings and their experience of sound, lighting, scents, etc.
  • All of the musicians reported some degree of unusual perceptions, especially relating to high sensory sensitivity.
  • All participants described music as a means of self-expression, relating to others, and finding fulfillment. Subjects reported that listening to or creating music allowed them to recharge when overstimulated.
  • Musicians reported that any amount of inhibition hindered creative production. Apparently, this was a conscious decision: artists explained how they learned to work with the process so that they did not unintentionally inhibit their creativity by blocking their own flow.
  • Many of Grimes’s subjects showed an appreciation of fantasy; daydreaming was commonly reported.
  • Grimes concludes that it is her hope that the stereotyping about introversion will cease to pervade introversion literature without unbiased support for those claims.

So that’s heavy metal rockers. Are they the only performers who show these seeming contradictions? Perhaps other extroverted performers, such as stand-up comedians, show similar complexities.

Psychologists Gil Greengross and Geoffrey Miller compared the personality traits of 31 professional stand-up comedians and nine amateur comedians against the personality traits of 10 humor writers and 400 college students. They found that the comedians (both professional and amateur) scored on average thelowest in self-reported extroversion, even lower than comedy writers!

According to the researchers:

The public perceives comedians as ostentatious and flashy. Their persona on stage is often mistakenly seen interchangeably with their real personality, and the jokes they tell about their lives are considered by many to have a grain of truth in them. However, the results of this study suggest that the opposite is true. Perhaps comedians use their performance to disguise who they are in their daily life. Comedians may portray someone they want to be, or perhaps their act is a way to defy the constraints imposed on their everyday events and interactions with others.

The evidence is clear: for a large majority of performers, in some of the most extroverted forms of performance, there is a great ability to juggle multiple faces and a need for downtime and reflection. New psychological research is showing just how intertwined and prevalent Openness to Experience, flow, abnormal perceptual experiences, and extroversion/introversion contradictions really are in creative people, especially artists. Hopefully by combining methods, such as self-reported experiences, peer reports, and more objective tests, we can shed more light on the many complexities and seeming contradictions found in creative people of many different flavors, and by so doing counter common black-and-white stereotypes about people in general.

Note: For insightful articles on the link between sensitivity and creativity, I highly recommend the Talent Development website. I also strongly recommend Susan Biali‘s Psychology Today article “Was Michael Jackson a Highly Sensitive Person(HSP)? Are You?“.

Author’s Note: Thanks to Jennifer O. Grimes for kindly sharing the summary of her musician interviews with me.


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