Crazy Artists

Last weekend I attended a Bengali community picnic. I went with my dad, expecting to play a little cricket, eat some food, and leave. Instead, I ended up catching up with three teens in my community who've grown tremendously since I last remember them, and found myself in a surprisingly thought-provoking conversation.

One teen in particular had a lot to say. He's an incoming freshman at Berkeley studying English. He wants to be an art critic, and he's certainly opinionated enough for the job.

We talked about original art. He contended that AI will never be able to create truly original art, because its output will always be an imitation or amalgamation of its dataset. I argued that amalgamations are original: interpolating between two points in a latent space leads to an original outcome if the new point didn't exist before. That latent space can represent anything, such as the space of all possible images, or the space of all possible texts. If DALL-E uses a prompt to approximate one of its training images, then apply a style transfer ("draw [X] in the style of [Y]"), then its output is almost always something that has never before been seen by human eyes. To me, that's original.

Overall, our disagreements boiled down to competing definitions of the word 'original,' which he was quick to point out. I believe something is truly original if it has never before existed as far as we know, and he believes it is original if it comes from a 'soul' (something we never got around to defining rigorously).

I think he hinted at the idea that the ability to feel empathy deeply is fundamental to having a soul, which leads me to his next simmering take: psychopaths and sociopaths are not capable of creating original art because they are not capable of feeling empathy.

He had me search up "art by serial killers" on Google Images, and pointed out that most of the results were childish, violent, and subject-less or simply boring. He also emphasized that the art almost always depicted violence or a desire to commit it.

Art by serial killers (Daily Mail). Honestly, The Nightstalker's picture would look pretty fire on a hoodie. And I don't see The Cleveland Strangler's work as all that childish or boring. It's pretty decent. Idk.

I don't agree with his stance, as some of the art does contain a subject unrelated to violence, and I personally don't find every piece to be boring. But I understood the premise of his argument: being born with a lack of empathy removes you from a core aspect of the human experience, and that impacts your ability to make original art.

After coming back home, I decided to search up "can psychopaths be artists," and read through the first handful of results. To my surprise, these clickbait-y titles were suggesting the opposite of the hypothesis: that great artists are more likely to be psychopaths or sociopaths. Here are the top 5 results from my Google search:

1) Can Psychopaths become artists? - Quora

2) Dark personality traits play a key role in making people more artistic

(I couldn't help put nose-exhale strongly at the full article title here: "Are YOU creative? Then you're probably a psychopath: …")

3) Study Suggests Creative People Are Kinda Pyscho

4) Are Creative People More Likely To Be Psychopathic?

5) Do Artists Share Traits with Psychopaths? - Artnet News

Clearly the most popular conception is the opposite. What would the reasoning be here?

All four of the results (excluding the Quora result) cited this one study by Galang et. al: Investigating the prosocial psychopath model of the creative personality: Evidence from traits and psychophysiology.

This makes perfect sense. It's always the same story: reporter picks up on interesting scientific study, dramatizes the results in a clickbait article, then other reporters pick up on it too and do the same. All four of the articles boiled down to the same template: "[basic context, filler] a new study shows [cite Galang] [more filler]".

The paper itself searches for studies to support the Prosocial Psychopath model (Galang 2010), which predicts, among many other things, that highly creative people share "certain neuropsychological features" with people described as having psychopathic traits. This paper finds 3 studies to support the claims of the previous work.

The first was an online survey of 503 people based mostly in the Philippines and between the ages of 17 and 35. They took a questionnaire which used a Likert scale to measure presence of Dark Triad traits (Machiavellianism, narcissism, psychopathy)  and an 8-point scale to measure creative achievement in a number of domains. Psychopathy scores positively correlated with creative achievement scores.

The second study was among 250 college students in Manila. Instead of testing for Dark Triad traits, it tested for the Triarchic Psychopathy Measure, which breaks psychopathy down into Boldness, Meanness, and Disinhibition. Only Boldness positively correlated with creative achievement.

The third study was among 93 college students, in Manila as well. It found an association between affective response during risky situations and creative ideation.

By now, you can start to see a pattern: all of the results are purely correlational. The saving grace is that the correlations align with the predictions of the Prosocial Psychopath model.  

In many cases, the effect size was small. The only unreasonably high correlation was found in study 1, between the achievements of architects and all three of their Dark Triad scores. Apparently the best architects are pretty narcissistic and bold.

Honorable mention goes to the high correlation (r=0.20, p=<.001) found between creative achievement and a factor which was a linear combination of narcissism and Machiavellianism. This makes sense under the lens that one will do better in creative fields if they have a slightly inflated sense of their own abilities, as well as the boldness to follow an end by any means necessary.

Overall, it makes sense that we'd find some sort of correlation between Dark Triad traits and creative achievement simply on the basis of there being multiple common factors between them, and an explainable mechanism for how presence of one can predict the other.

But that doesn't mean you can flip the logic on it's head, though. Just because many people with high Triad scores happen to have high creative output doesn't mean that those who have high creative output must have high Triad scores. There are surely a myriad more non-psychopathic successful artists than there are psychopathic ones.

So, the morals of the story?

  • Presence of the Dark Triad traits may be correlated with high creative achievement, but the effect size is small.
  • Don't mix cause and effect.
  • Watch out for the best architects of our generation...they might just take your breath away ;)

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P.S. as always, please reach out to me if you have any feedback, or just want to chat!

P.P.S. This one teen wasn't the only interesting one, for the record. Another one had a number of celebrity encounter stories. Apparently he's in a group chat with Kanye West on Instagram, and it's semi-regularly active. Also, Ye is one of around 70 of his followers. I verified this claim, but it still baffles me.