The Association Between Creativity and Psychopathology: Part II

On “Creative Mythconceptions: A Closer Look at the Evidence for the ‘Mad Genius’ Hypothesis” by Schlesinger (2009)

            Most people believe that the link between creativity and mental illness has been scientifically “proven,” but this belief is unfounded, according to Schlesinger (2009), who says that the issue is by no means settled, and may never be settled due to the difficulties of conducting research on the topic. Schlesinger (2009) critically reviews the work of the three biggest names in the field and argues that their “landmark” studies contain serious methodological flaws that have, until now, been overlooked or underemphasized by the scientific community. She states:

Many people—including too many mental health professionals and textbook writers—continue to assume that an invariable connection between great creativity and pathology has already been proven. This conviction draws its primary strength from two sources: (a) the influential claims of psychiatrists Nancy Andreasen and Arnold Ludwig and psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison, and (b) the lack of equally strong, visible, and recurring professional statements to the contrary. (p. 62)

            Schlesinger (2009) condemns modern researchers for citing the seminal works of Andreasen (1987), Jamison (1989; 1993), and Ludwig (1995) without critically analyzing their methodologies, and she rather pointedly insinuates that the prominent trio is often cited by researchers who haven’t actually read the original publications. Schlesinger expresses her disappointment that many authors trumpet the words of Andreasen, Jamison, and Ludwig as if their suppositions are verified facts rather than tenuous speculations. She wryly alleges that one text had to borrow a quote from Nietzsche in order to “compensate for its lack of hard data” (p. 63). After relaying the quote—‘One must harbor chaos within oneself to give birth to a dancing star’—Schlesinger condenses the sentiments of her entire thesis into a single, sarcastic question: “Who needs science when we have such compelling poetry to make the case?” (p. 63).

When the “scientific” evidence of Andreasen, Jamison, and Ludwig is scrutinized, it becomes clear that Schlesinger’s critiques—blunt and facetious though they may be—deserve serious consideration. According to Schlesinger, Andreasen’s famous study began in 1972 but was not published until 1987. After fifteen years of data collection, Andreasen only managed to amass a whopping N of 30 (27 of these were male). All experimental participants were faculty members from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and Andreasen herself interviewed them about their own mental health histories as well as the pathologies of their closest relatives. Andreasen’s interview was self-constructed and lacked empirical validation, and her diagnostic criteria were only available for review upon request. Participants in the non-writer control group worked in areas such as law, administration, and social work—professions that Andreasen personally believed did not require high levels of creativity (Schlesinger, 2009).

Despite the clear flaws of this design—questionable validity of measures/constructs, high risk of experimenter bias, small sample size, and low external validity, to name a few—Andreasen’s ‘stunning’ report that 80% of the writers in her study suffered from mood disorders, compared to only 30% of the non-writers, spread quickly and soon became fodder for news stories and media dramatizations (Schlesinger, 2009). While Andreasen later acknowledged a few limitations of her study, she attempted to divert further criticism by reporting that 2 of her 30 writers eventually committed suicide. In Andreasen’s words: ‘the issues of statistical significance pale before the clinical implications of this fact’ (p. 64). Schlesinger, however, seems to think that the myriad of methodological weaknesses and dearth of significant results in Andreasen’s (1987) study have remained the key areas of concern (Schlesinger, 2009).

Similar methodological criticisms apply to the works of Kay Jamison, who has also been a great champion of the link between creativity and psychopathology, specifically focusing on mood disorders. Schlesinger (2009) notes that Jamison’s (1989) study used a small, handpicked sample; there was no control group; and all conclusions were based on self-report data, which was collected during interviews by Jamison, who apparently utilized unofficial diagnostic criteria. Despite these weaknesses, Jamison’s findings were, at first glance, even more remarkable than Andreasen’s: Jamison reported that her creative participants sought treatment for affective illness at a rate 30x greater than that of the general population. However, it does not take long for Schlesinger to add, “The 50% figure for disordered poets is equally astonishing, unless you know that it represents only nine people, news that tends to disappear when the study is quoted—along with the fact that her 12.5% total for depression-medicated visual artists refers to just one person” (Schlesinger, 2009, p. 65). Clearly, sample size was as much of a problem for Jamison as it was for Andreasen.

Schlesinger was not the first to comment upon these deficiencies. In his book, Creativity and Madness: New Findings and Old Stereotypes, Albert Rothenberg (1990) states:

Two presumably objective studies by Drs. Kay Jamison and Nancy Andreason…have been consistently discussed in popular as well as professional publications as having proven a connection between affective illness—depression, mania, or both together—and creativity, despite the fact that the first had not been published or reviewed in a scientific journal until quite recently, and the other had a flawed research methodology. The need to believe in a connection between creativity and madness appears to be so strong that affirmations are welcomed and quoted rather uncritically. (p. 150)

            Rothenberg (1990) later asserts that creative eminence is in no way associated with a particular personality type or disposition; rather, he reports that, in his own research, the only trait present in creative individuals across the board was motivation. Still, Rothenberg’s (1990) criticisms did not sway popular opinion, and, four years after Jamison’s initial study, she published a book entitled, Touched with Fire: Manic Depression and the Artistic Temperament, which became, in Schlesinger’s (2009) words, the “proverbial bible” in the creativity and mental illness debate (p. 63). Of course, the majority of evidence in Jamison’s book is anecdotal, and some of the claims are simply educated guesswork. For example, Jamison includes a table entitled ‘Probable Cyclothymia, Major Depression, or Manic-Depressive Illness’ that lists the names of 166 dead writers, artists, and composers, whom Jamison personally “diagnosed.” Never mind that archive-based, retrospective diagnoses should be viewed with caution on principle alone—the lack of a bibliography completely precludes any attempt for readers to assess the validity of Jamison’s sources and diagnostic criteria. Most concerning is that the word ‘Probable’ tends to disappear whenever the list is referenced (Schlesinger, 2009), and thus Touched with Fire only added fuel to a flame that was already spreading too quickly.

Finally, Arnold Ludwig, the author of a (1995) book entitled The Price of Greatness: Resolving the Creativity and Madness Controversy, was heavily influenced by the writings of Jamison, and his support for the link between creativity and mental illness is no less questionable, again due to methodological flaws. Ludwig read the New York Times biographies of 1,004 famous individuals in an attempt to identify psychological commonalities that might have contributed to their achievements. Yet he treated the biographies as if they were objective sources, rather than acknowledging that the biographers must have had their own personal and professional agendas at the time of composition. In addition, he lumped military, scientific, social, and political eminence in the same category as artistic eminence; his evaluations were based upon variables that were largely undefined and subjective (e.g. ‘oddness’); he contradicted himself throughout the text regarding whether or not he actually supported a link between affective disorders and creativity; and, like Jamison, he failed to include a bibliography (Schlesinger, 2009).

Given that Andreasen, Jamison, and Ludwig’s investigations all contained substantial flaws and limitations, Schlesinger concludes that “there is still no clear, convincing, scientific proof that artists do, in fact, suffer more psychological problems than any other vocational group” (p. 69). We should therefore find it troublesome that our culture’s endorsement of the “mad genius” hypothesis has been based almost exclusively on the claims of Andreasen, Jamison, and Ludwig—claims that do not hold up well under scientific scrutiny. These three figures have had an enormous influence on the rest of the field, and this reality must be acknowledged as we evaluate and interpret the findings of more recent publications.

(Search “Psychopathology” at the top of the page to find the other posts in this series!)


Schlesinger, J. (2009). Creative mythconceptions: A closer look at the evidence for the “mad genius” hypothesis. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 3(2), 62-72.

Rothenberg, A. (1990). Creativity and madness: New findings and old stereotypes. Baltimore: The John’s Hopkins University Press.


Also see:

Andreasen, N. C. (1987).  Creativity and mental illness: Prevalence rates in writers and their first-degree relatives. American Journal of Psychiatry, 144, 1288-1292.

Jamison, K. R. (1989). Mood disorders and patterns of creativity in British writers and artists. Psychiatry, 52, 125-134.

Jamison, K. R. (1993). Touched with fire: Manic-depressive illness and the artistic temperament. New York: Free Press.

Ludwig, A. M. (1995). The price of greatness: Resolving the creativity and madness Controversy. New York: The Guilford Press.

The Association Between Creativity and Psychopathology: Part I

On Creativity and Mental Illness: An Evaluation of Past and Present Research on the ‘Mad Genius’ Hypothesis

 “No great genius has ever existed without some touch of madness.” ~Aristotle

“Everything we think of as great has come to us from neurotics.” ~Marcel Proust

“We of the craft are all crazy…” ~Lord Byron

           Society has been fascinated by the apparent link between creativity and madness since antiquity, as Aristotle’s quote implies. If we restrict the depth of our analyses to observations of eminent artists and their creations, the line separating madness and brilliance appears thin, the “mad genius” hypothesis valid. For example, “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman draws the reader into a spiral of insanity so authentic that a connection between creativity and psychopathology seems logical, if not undisputable. Stories of famous poets, painters, and novelists who have struggled with mental illnesses provide powerfully convincing support for the link, and anecdotal evidence dominates many discussions on the topic. Virginia Woolf, Vincent Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath, Edgar Allen Poe—all of these artists were exceptional in their fields, and it is frequently reported that their commonalities extend beyond creative eminence: each one also battled debilitating mental illness.

Creative geniuses mystify us, and we are often so taken by their abilities that we cannot help but speculate as to the origin of their talents. Attributing artistic brilliance to eccentricities of the mind seems to have become common practice, but our culture’s fixation on, and romanticized view of, the “mad genius” is not without consequences. Correctly or not, a painter whose productivity suddenly increases may be rumored to be manic; a poet whose verses explore the darker side of the human psyche might be called depressed. Not only does the popular notion of the “mad genius” increase the chances that we will make premature assumptions regarding the mental health of artists, it also heightens the risk that creative individuals will be irreversibly stigmatized by such labels. What’s more, many artists themselves are convinced there’s a link between creativity and psychopathology, and these beliefs may reduce the likelihood that they will seek treatment for mental disorders, for fear that their muses will be chased away, their sources of inspiration rendered inaccessible. Here are two illustrative quotes from the book Poets on Prozac, a collection of essays about mental illness and the creative process:

 “I was afraid that Prozac might stifle me, inhibit those voyages, subtly change the mental structure of my brain in a way that would keep me from the wild, intuitive jump.” ~Jesse Millner

 “Which brings me to wonder about the function of psychotropic drugs and whether in some cases they actually hinder a creative person from getting in touch with his or her dark, depressive side, actually get in the way of that dormancy some call depression, which may actually be a period of important creative gestation for what comes next.” ~David Budbill

           That such beliefs may be pervasive in our society provides a justifiable motivation for a more systematic evaluation of the literature. Thus, we shall ask: How is creativity defined, and could different types of creativity be associated with different psychological profiles? What does the empirical evidence support—a link between creativity and psychopathology, or a lack thereof? What is the current focus of research in this area? And–because the answer has so many implications for the creatively predisposed–how did the endorsement of the “mad genius” hypothesis become so widespread in the first place?

The latter question shall be our starting point, for we must understand the history of this intriguing debate in order to evaluate the current climate. It would be unwise to judge the quality of a house without first inspecting its foundation…

(Search “Psychopathology” in the box at the top of the page to find posts 2-4 in this series!)


Berlin, R. M. (2008). Poets on Prozac: Mental illness, treatment, and the creative process. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Site’s Still Active!

“The strokes of the pen need deliberation as much as the sword needs swiftness.” 
~Julia Ward Howe


Yes, dear readers, this is why it’s been ages since my last post–I’ve been deliberating, you see.

Okay, that may be a bit of a lie. I mentioned this in one of my last posts, but let me reiterate–grad school is BUSY! I barely have time to eat, sleep, and waste time on Facebook, let alone write new blog posts. But, there is good news: I’m taking a graduate course this semester entitled “Psychopathology,” and, for my final paper, I’ve chosen to write about the “mad-genius hypothesis”–the speculated link between mental disorder and creativity (think Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Vincent van Gogh). This means I will be reading a plethora of research articles on the topic and will have some very interesting new posts for you between now and the end of the semester.

For now, check out a few related  links below. Keep in mind, however, that most of these articles are based on anecdotal, rather than empirical, evidence, and even the claims grounded in research may be controversial. So put on your skeptical glasses and click away:

Thanks for continuing to visit the site; be sure to pass the link along to friends and family who might be interested as well, and check back soon!

Discernment and Creativity

I recently (about 5 minutes ago) read a peer-reviewed article entitled, “Discernment and Creativity: How Well Can People Identify Their Most Creative Ideas?”

The title alone is intriguing. It’s hard enough to get our creative muses to speak to us–but now we have to evaluate the quality of that message, too? Seriously, muse…how about we skip this step and you only give me good ideas in the first place? ‘K thanks.

All joking aside, the article title actually does raise an interesting question. For you writers out there: have you ever written a story that you were really jazzed about, and you expected it to be a big hit with your critique group, only to have it torn apart in class/during the meeting? And on the flip side, have you ever written a story that you felt only so-so about, but then it was really well received by your readers?

Discernment–or “the ability to evaluate the creativity of one’s ideas”–is an important component of psychological theories of creativity. Within the construct of “creativity,” there appear to be at least two distinct processes involved: generation (coming up with the ideas) and evaluation (judging all of the ideas, then retaining and revising the best ideas). Although empirical research has focused more on the generation side of the coin, it makes sense why evaluation might matter: there are some ideas that should immediately see the inside of a trash can. Case in point: the Snuggie, a blanket with sleeves (it makes you look like a monk, although I’ll admit the commercial is quite compelling– In other situations–when the ideas have some merit–evaluation can help us decide whether more development is needed or it isn’t worth the extra effort.

When I was about 10, I sent an email to Skittles headquarters with an idea for a new commercial. From what I recall, it had something to do with Jack and the Beanstalk, planting Skittles instead of beans, and growing a beanstalk that spewed the colorful pieces of candy everywhere (remember, memory is fallible; I’ll apologize in advance if I’m misremembering an actual Skittles commercial as my own idea…and this disclaimer is a nice little teaser for my next post, which will deal with cryptomnesia, or unconscious plagiarism!) Anyway, this wasn’t the worst idea in the world, especially for a 10-year-old…but it probably could have been thought out in a little more detail before I sent Skittles an email with a description of the concept and a gracious proclamation that, should they decide to use my idea, I would be fine with receiving 20% of all revenue generated from the ad. (Incidentally, Milton Bradley received a very similar letter from me after I invented a board game for a 4th grade project. I don’t think I mentioned my age in either instance, but my handwriting might have given it away in the latter case.)

In the study mentioned above, Silvia first discusses the idea of accuracy in creativity judgments, and then she sets out to examine (1) whether people are generally discerning and (2) whether some people are more discerning than other people. I’ll skip the finer points of her discussion on accuracy, but basically she points out that there is no “gold standard” for creativity. Creative products don’t have some innate level of creativeness; rather, judgments of creativity are entirely subjective. Instead of accuracy, therefore, it might be more informative to look at extent of agreement of creativity judgments.

Participants in Silvia’s (2008) study completed a variety of measures of personality, cognition, attitudes, and demographics. They also completed four divergent thinking tasks, which are commonly used to study creativity. Two of these tasks were “unusual uses” tasks, in which participants were asked to generate creative uses for two objects, a brick and a knife (it was Miss Ruby, in the attic, with a brick!) . The other two tasks were “instance” tasks, in which participants were asked to list creative responses for both “things that are round” and “things that make noise” (“babies” would fit both categories, I think?). After each task, participants were asked to circle their two most creative responses. Later, three judges independently rated the creativity of all the responses in the study, which were presented to them in an alphabetical list (so the judges did not know which responses came from which participants). Judges read through the entire list of responses once before going back to rate the responses for creativity on a scale of 1 (not at all creative) to 5 (highly creative).

Silvia found that, overall, participants’ ratings of their top two responses agreed with the judges ratings, suggesting that people are generally discerning in their creativity judgments. But were some people in the sample more discerning than others? The personality measures completed by participants examined the “Big Five” personality domains: extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness, neuroticism, and conscientiousness. Consistent with previous research, people who scored high in openness to experience also had higher creativity scores overall. Interestingly, openness to experience also predicted the extent of agreement between the participants’ ratings and the judges’ ratings–people who scored higher in openness to experience were more discerning as well (better able to pick out their most creative ideas). The opposite was true for conscientiousness–higher conscientiousness scores were associated with lower levels of creativity and less discernment.

The take-home message: it appears that more creative individuals are also more discerning, and both of these traits are linked to an individual’s openness to experience.


I don’t know about you, but now I’m thinking I should go out and have a few adventures, and maybe it’ll help my writing career. One possibility: mountain climbing.

I’ll pack my Snuggie.




Silvia, P. J. (2008). Discernment and creativity: How well can people identify their most creative ideas? Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 2(3), 139-146.

Motivation and Creativity

Why write? Why paint, or draw, or sculpt, or design?

Why be creative at all?


A person is said to be “intrinsically motivated” to perform an activity if there are no apparent rewards for or benefits from performing that activity other than the enjoyment that comes from the activity itself. A person is said to be “extrinsically motivated” to perform an activity if his/her actions are driven by external rewards such as money or praise. In the former case, participation is about the process. In the latter case, participation is a means to an end.

So do we write (or paint, draw, sculpt, or design) because we enjoy it, or do we write because we need to pay the bills?

The majority of writers and artists can probably cite both intrinsic AND extrinsic motivations for doing what they do. But let’s say you started writing solely because you enjoyed it (you were intrinsically motivated to write that poem or short story or novel) and then–what luck!–you started getting paid for it. What would this mean for your love of writing? Would the introduction of  external rewards decrease your intrinsic enjoyment in the activity? And would there be an effect on the quality of your creative product if it was developed as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself?

These questions are relevant  to the career plans of many budding writers and artists. “If I become a potter,” one might wonder, “and my income becomes dependent on my talents, will it take the fun out of pottery for me?” How one answers this question might mean the difference between declaring an Art major and launching a self-run business or declaring an Economics major and attending Pottery Club meetings on the weekends.

Now, I know what some of you are thinking: “I love to write, and I’ll love it even more if I can get a book deal.” This might be true, but let’s take a look at some of the scientific research that has been conducted on the topic…

Psychologists have been interested in intrinsic and extrinsic motivation for decades. Deci’s (1971) classic study suggested that participants’ intrinsic motivation to perform an activity decreased when money was offered as a reward, but, interestingly, intrinsic motivation actually increased when the external reward was verbal praise. So, the nature of the reward may be an important factor to consider.

Lepper, Greene, and Nisbett (1973) conducted a similar study with preschool children who had reported high levels of intrinsic interest in drawing. These participants were asked to engage in a drawing activity, and they were randomly assigned to one of three conditions. In the “expected-award” condition, the children participated in the drawing activity in order to receive a “good player” certificate at the end. In the “unexpected-award” condition, children participated in the drawing activity without the expectation of a reward, but they still received the “good player” certificate at the end of the task. In the “no-award” condition, children participated in the drawing activity without the expectation of a reward, and they did not receive a certificate at the end. One to two weeks later, the drawing activity was reintroduced to the children in a classroom context (with no expected rewards), and measures of intrinsic interest were obtained by the researchers, who observed the children from behind a one-way mirror. As expected, children who had been in the “expected-reward” condition subsequently showed lower levels of intrinsic interest in the drawing task than children in the “unexpected-reward” condition or the “no-award” condition. The important thing to note is that the children in all three conditions had roughly equivalent levels of intrinsic interest in drawing prior to the experimental manipulation. Thus, it appears that the introduction of an external incentive resulted in a drop in intrinsic motivation for the children in the “expected-reward” condition (Lepper et al., 1973).

This finding has important implications for educational settings. Teachers typically endorse “positive reinforcement,” often rewarding children with stickers or some other prize for good behavior or a job well done. In this sense, the Lepper et al. (1973) findings might seem counterintuitive. Aren’t rewards a good thing? Oftentimes, they are–but external rewards might also have unintended effects if the child was intrinsically motivated to engage in activity/behavior in the first place–e.g. drawing quietly during free-play time or helping a classmate find a lost toy. Providing external rewards in these cases may reduce the child’s intrinsic motivation to engage in the activity/behavior in the future; the focus has shifted from the enjoyment of the activity to the reward. As Deci’s (1971) results implied, verbal praise might be more effective, in the long run, than gold stars.


So what does all this mean for creativity?

Well, for one thing, it supports the notion that, in some circumstances, a person’s enjoyment of a creative endeavor might be undermined if there is a shift from a focus on intrinsic motivation to perform the task to a focus on external rewards. In addition, Amabile (1985) actually found evidence to suggest that intrinsic motivation may be conducive to creativity, while extrinsic motivation may impair creativity. Participants wrote poems under conditions of intrinsic or extrinsic motivation, and these poems were later rated by a panel of judges for their level of “creativity.” Interestingly, poems written by participants in the “extrinsic” condition were rated as less creative (on average) than poems written by participants in the “intrinsic” condition (Amabile, 1985). 

In sum, extrinsic motivation may not only result in decreased intrinsic interest in an activity, but it might also have a negative effect on a person’s overall creativity. The studies I have cited here are quite old, and research in recent years has examined the topic in more depth, focusing on relevant factors such as the type of reward and whether the reward is performance-dependent. The issue is complex, however, and there still seems to be no solid consensus as to whether external rewards consistently undermine intrinsic motivation. (See the references below, and run a Google search if you are interested in learning more!)

Regardless, the ideas raised here are certainly thought-provoking, and I think there is something to be learned from these classic studies: even if you get paid for writing or painting or sculpting, it may be important to remember why you were drawn to that creative endeavor in the first place.

Remember why you love it.





Deci, E. L. (1971). Effects of externally mediated rewards on intrinsic motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 18, 105-115.

Lepper, M., Greene, D., & Nisbett, R. (1973). Undermining children’s intrinsic interest with extrinsic rewards: A test of the “overjustification” hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 28, 129-137.

Amabile, T. M. (1985). Motivation and Creativity: Effects of Motivational Orientation on Creative Writers. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 48(2), 393-399.

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