My thanks to a colleague who introduced this article to me.
The Creativity of Anger
by Jonah Lehrer (original article here)
Many of my favorite Steve Jobs stories feature his anger, as he unleashes his incisive temper on those who fail to meet his incredibly high standards. A few months ago, Adam Lashinsky had a fascinating article in Fortune describing life inside the sanctum of 1 Infinite Loop. The article begins with the following scene:
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.
Brutal, right? But those flashes of intolerant anger have always been an important part of Jobs’ management approach. He isn’t shy about the confrontation of failure and he doesn’t hold back negative feedback. He is blunt at all costs, a cultural habit that has permeated the company. Jonathan Ive, the lead designer at Apple, describes the tenor of group meetings as “brutally critical.”
At first glance, this cultivation of anger and criticism seems like a terrible idea. We assume that group collaboration requires niceties and affirmation, that we should always accentuate the positive. Just look at brainstorming, perhaps the most widely implemented creativity technique in the world. 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.
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.
The larger story here is about the surprising benefits of negative moods. While sad subjects in this new study underperformed on the creative generation task, previous research has demonstrated that sadness increases creative persistence, allowing subjects to work harder for extended periods of time. (In other words, melancholy is bad in the short-term, but good for the long haul.) Consider a recentpaper, “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. As Akinola notes, this is largely because the sadness improved their focus, and made them more likely to persist with the creative challenge:
Previous research has shown that negative feedback can lead to increased subsequent effort, as long as the task is not perceived as too difficult to be mastered (Locke & Latham, 1990). This is consistent with research indicating that when individuals experience negative affect in a situation that requires creativity, this negative affect may be interpreted as a signal that additional effort must be exerted for a creative solution to be discovered. In contrast, positive mood coupled with a situation that requires creativity may be an indication that the creative goal has been met, reducing the amount of effort exerted on the task.
To be honest, I find this data a little depressing. I’d rather have a brain that, as Osborn believed, always performs best when content and carefree. Unfortunately, that’s not the brain we’ve been stuck with. (Although don’t forget that watching stand-up comedy can improve performance on insight puzzles. Happiness isn’t completely useless.) I’m afraid the novelist J.M. Coetzee was at least partially right: “Always move towards pain when making art.”
PS. Over at Mind Matters, Brett Q. Ford has an excellent summary of the new anger paper.