Oooh. Now We Have “Malevolent” Creativity

When you think of creativity, you probably imagine a genius behind an easel or at the heart of a brilliantly directed movie. However, people can also tap into their creative juices if they want to rise to power, enact revenge, or just create trouble.

Recall the last time you read a historical novel or watched a television documentary in which the central figure started a war, went on a killing spree, or committed a well-planned set of heinous crimes. Maybe you imagined a different outcome of these events in which that historical figure used their bold tactics to help instead of harm the world. You might also have wondered what drove that person to their dastardly deeds.

The Malevolently Creative

According to Guangzhou University’s Hongyu Fu and Zhonglu Zhang (2024), “malevolent creativity refers to creative ideas or behaviors that deliberately harm others, organizations, society, and their extensive symbols.” People high in this tendency may go around on a daily basis telling lies for no reason other than to create mischief or amuse themselves. These are also the people who will create more than mischief as they put their creativity to use in seeking to outmaneuver their coworkers or figure out ways to drain a family member’s bank account.

Given the rapidly growing literature on the dark triad, you might imagine that malevolent creativity is just another variant of this set of undesirable qualities (psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism). According to Fu and Zhang, though, all that’s needed to peer into the personality of the malevolently creative is to measure their honesty-humility, one of six traits in the “HEXACO” personality model (extraversion, agreeableness, emotional stability, conscientiousness, and openness are the other five).

The question of morality also must come into play at some point, given that being dishonest isn’t enough to account for the fearsome actions of the malevolently creative. As the Guangzhou U. researchers maintain, the inventively evil, by definition, behaves immorally.

The final piece of the puzzle involves the emotions that these individuals experience that either prompt their actions or emerge as an outcome while committing them. They are not like the people who do nice things for others, the “prosocial,” Those who do these nice things experience a set of emotions associated with morality, including gratitude, sympathy, and empathy; if they engage in bad behavior, they feel guilty. The emotions can take on a kind of enduring quality, too. Emotions can vacillate from situation to situation, but there are also moral and emotional traits that persist across time and place.

Testing the Factors that Drive the Malevolently Creative

Putting all these pieces together into a prediction model, Fu and Zhang proposed that malevolent creativity would emerge as a function of the personality trait of Honesty-Humility along with the other HEXACO traits of openness (signifying creativity) and emotionality (tendency to avoid worry or anxiety). Their online sample of 592 participants (average age 24) also completed measures of prosocial emotions, guilt, and shame.

The measure of malevolent creativity served as the main outcome of the prediction equation. Composed of three subscales, this 13-item questionnaire includes these sample items:

Hurting people: “How often do you have ideas about new ways to punish people?”

Lying: “How often do you tell lies without worrying about being nailed?”

Playing tricks: “How often do you play tricks on people as revenge?”

As you can see, these items aren’t just measuring psychopathic tendencies (lying and lack of remorse) but have more of a creative spin.

Overall, the findings showed that, as predicted, people low in honesty-humility had higher scores on malevolent creativity. However, the traits of guilt and gratitude negated this relationship. As the authors concluded, these prosocial emotions “may allow individuals to control their immoral thoughts and weaken their malevolent creative tendencies.” Empathy and sympathy, however, did not alter the creativity-honesty relationship. Both of these prosocial orientations were more strongly related to openness and emotionality, which, in turn, had no bearing on malevolent creativity itself.

Dealing with Malevolent Creativity in Everyday Life

Although correlational, the Guangzhou U. study’s statistical controls meant that the authors were able to demonstrate a pathway from honesty-humility to the set of undesirable behaviors that people high in malevolent creativity can dream up. The study also puts into clear relief the psychological qualities that could be at the root of events that you might otherwise find impossible to comprehend. Why would someone put their intellectual skills to use in a way that causes terrible outcomes? The answer appears to lie at the intersection of personality traits and stable emotional qualities that produce harmful thoughts with no moral compunctions to go with them.

When you move from large acts of evil to the everyday behaviors that cause you personal harm or at least concern, you can also gain important insights. Perhaps you’ve been working alongside a friend or colleague who you’ve trusted to take your best interests at heart. You’ve confided in this person about not liking a mutual acquaintance, assuming that your words would be kept in confidence. Instead, you learn that this supposedly trusted person went behind your back and reported the conversation to this other person, word for word.

Creativity Essential Reads

The Chinese authors suggest that there are ways to counteract the dishonestly imaginative tendencies that drive these individuals, but these must begin early in life. Children who may enjoy plotting ways to harm others could, theoretically, be educated in ways that shape them morally so that those tendencies become overridden. Short-term, though, this doesn’t provide a fix for the people you’re dealing with now.

Instead, you can use the findings to come to grips with the fact that empathy and sympathy won’t help when it comes to restraining the malevolently creative. Rather than tell that deceitful person how their behavior makes you feel, it might be more effective to enlist their sense of right and wrong. The good news is that you can call them out for what they’ve done and not worry about hurting their feelings. Once you stake your position, it’s possible they stay away from harming you (but not others) in the future.

To sum up, the deceptively inventive and destructive qualities that drive malevolent behavior, both on a large and small scale, can be puzzling and disturbing. By understanding the personality and emotions that drive it, you can both understand and protect yourself from its destructive impact.

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