Is Anger Creative?

Through the new Pharyngula, I’ve come across a post by Jonah Lehrer about a study that claims that anger fosters creativity. While I admit to getting a little angry myself on occasion, and while I might be willing to accept that it might, the question is: is it a good way to foster creativity?

The article starts by talking about Steve Jobs’ management style, which is classified as confrontational and angry:

In the summer of 2008, when Apple launched the first version of its iPhone that worked on third-generation mobile networks, it also debuted MobileMe, an e-mail system that was supposed to provide the seamless synchronization features that corporate users love about their BlackBerry smartphones. MobileMe was a dud. Users complained about lost e-mails, and syncing was spotty at best. Though reviewers gushed over the new iPhone, they panned the MobileMe service.

Steve Jobs doesn’t tolerate duds. Shortly after the launch event, he summoned the MobileMe team, gathering them in the Town Hall auditorium in Building 4 of Apple’s campus, the venue the company uses for intimate product unveilings for journalists. According to a participant in the meeting, Jobs walked in, clad in his trademark black mock turtleneck and blue jeans, clasped his hands together, and asked a simple question:

“Can anyone tell me what MobileMe is supposed to do?” Having received a satisfactory answer, he continued, “So why the fuck doesn’t it do that?”

For the next half-hour Jobs berated the group. “You’ve tarnished Apple’s reputation,” he told them. “You should hate each other for having let each other down.” The public humiliation particularly infuriated Jobs. Walt Mossberg, the influential Wall Street Journal gadget columnist, had panned MobileMe. “Mossberg, our friend, is no longer writing good things about us,” Jobs said. On the spot, Jobs named a new executive to run the group.

Well, there are good and bad things about this, and various ways that anger can be really, really bad if you don’t know what you’re doing. I’d argue that, anger or not, what Jobs did here was basically demonstrate accountability. They were working on a product, the product didn’t work, he berated them — holding them accountable for their failure — and then made a direct action by sacking the executive who’d overseen this and putting someone else in that person’s place to, presumably, get the thing working right. So I’d agree that if the alternative is some kind of soppy “Well, we’ll get them next time” or a minor “We’ll have to work on this”, I’ll take the more bombastic approach. But do you imagine that it would be less motivating for the head of the company to come in and coldly appraise their situation, pointing out all the facts, declare that it was a failure and changes would be made, with a new executive in place and other consequences? Maybe it would be less motivating, just due to the influence of passion. But I think that the accountability — and making that clear from the start — would work mostly as well.

The problem with anger here — and everywhere, in my opinion — is that you had better be right. The cold guy looking at the numbers is simply heartless, but you know that he really doesn’t care about what the factors where. You didn’t succeed, and whether that was because you were incompetent or whether that was due to external factors is irrelevant. If the cold guy is good at the job, he’ll be able to answer what you ought to have done to overcome that — and if analytic or knowledgeable enough, already knows who’s to blame and has taken steps. Or, at least, you think that. But if Jobs is ticked off, did he really analyze all the factors and blame the right people? Maybe he isn’t aware that it was held up because the hardware guys on the IPhone decided that the MobileMe wasn’t going to sell and didn’t support it. Maybe there was internal competition that messed things up. Maybe there were actual problems with the hardware that really caused the issue. Maybe that group did everything they possibly could to make that work, and simply couldn’t do it. Berating them for failing when they couldn’t succeed will generate anger itself, and if that was the case expect a ton of people to just quit. Why? Because he’s bascially accusing them of being incompetent when they weren’t, and they have no reason to be confident that he did enough thinking to see that. And honestly, people don’t forget that. They’ll take it if they think it’s true, but if they don’t the negative feelings will linger.

Ultimately, if you’re going to be angry, you had better be right. If you are angry and aren’t right, you’re going to have to make very sheepish apologies to avoid the hard feelings. A more analytic approach that doesn’t actually cast blame but takes steps works better. So, in some sense, in contrast to what I said above, sometimes even drop notions of accountability, at least in the sense of blame. When you remove that executive, don’t make it sound like it was that executive’s fault or that they’re to blame. Make it so that it’s simply the case that they were not the person to make this work. If they are, in fact, incompetent, then do sack them for it. But if you aren’t sure, don’t cast blame. Just move on. Then there’s no real room for negative feelings.

Anyway, after that digression, moving on to anger being creative, and a possible counter to my suggestion that you don’t want people to get angry:

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.

Now, this summary is dealing with brainstorming, which is what Lehrer claims was based on a non-confrontational approach:

In the late 1940s, Alex Osborn, a founding partner of the advertising firm BBDO, outlined the virtues of brainstorming in a series of best-selling books. (He insisted that brainstorming could double the creative output of a group.) The most important principle, he said, was the total absence of criticism. According to Osborn, if people were worried about negative feedback, if they were concerned that their new ideas might get ridiculed by the group or the boss, then the brainstorming process would fail. “Creativity is so delicate a flower that praise tends to make it bloom, while discouragement often nips it in the bud,” Osborn wrote in Your Creative Power.

I’d have to look at the study in detail, but I strongly suspect that the negative feedback issues aren’t the same. I doubt that the people who were angry spent their time criticizing other people’s suggestions and making everyone angry over that sort of criticism. That’s the sort of thing that will make brainstorming fail, as people won’t suggest ideas that are really out there because they’re afraid of being laughed at or ridiculed, and no one likes that. You get the most creativity from brainstorming when you can toss out any idea, no matter how dumb it might sound. You figure out later which are really dumb. So, what we likely had was people who were what I’ll call “ramped up” with anger who then did brainstorming mostly normally, and creativity increased. So what’s the explanation for that:

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.

I can buy this, to some extent. That was why I used the term “ramped up”. Adrenaline is running and people are getting a lot of energy generated by the anger. They need to burn it off, and so there’s a lot of energy available to be creative. But all you need to do, then, is generate that energy. Anger is one way to do it, but enthusiasm should work as well. If you make people be enthusiastic or excited about it, it should work the same way … right down to it running out quickly and be tiring.

The post moves on to talking about other negative moods and their impacts:

Consider a recent paper, “The Dark Side of Creativity,” led by Modupe Akinola. The setup was very clever: she asked subjects to give a short speech about their dream job. The students were randomly assigned to either a positive or negative feedback condition, in which their speech was greeted with smiles and vertical nods (positive) or frowns and horizontal shakes (negative). After the speech was over, the subjects were given glue, paper and colored felt and told to make a collage using the materials. Professional artists then evaluated each collage according to various metrics of creativity.

Not surprisingly, the feedback impacted the mood of the subjects: Those who received smiles during their speeches reported feeling better than before, while frowns had the opposite effect. What’s interesting is what happened next: Subjects in the negative feedback condition created much prettier collages. Their angst led to better art.

Well, I’d be hesitant to base anything on a judgement of “prettier” or “metrics of creativity”. What the heck are those anyway, and how do we know that they don’t themselves inherently build in things that would be produced in a worse mood? And how sure are we that it’s focus that makes the improvement, if there’s one there? So this is fairly sketchy, at least when it gets down to reasons for it.

Anyway, I think that people work best when they’re engaged in what they’re doing, which means that they’re enjoying it. Negative moods, in theory, affect enjoyment, but they can invoke similar bodily reactions and similar “passions” to genuine enthusiasm or enjoyment. But much more work needs to be done before we can conclude that anger is a good way to generate creativity. We’d need, at least, to see what downsides there are, and my guess is that those downsides will be quite substantial, as will the effects of other negative moods. But that’s something that can be tested.

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