Menus Subscribe Search
repressed-art

(PHOTO: CLEO/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Turning Repressed Emotions Into Great Art

• July 22, 2013 • 4:00 AM

(PHOTO: CLEO/SHUTTERSTOCK)

A new study finds repressed feelings can spur creativity—for some. It depends on your religious and cultural upbringing.

It has long been theorized that repressed anger or forbidden sexual desire can be a creative catalyst. After all, one way to exorcise internal tensions is to channel them into art.

Provocative new research supports that notion, while cautioning that it isn’t universally true. Three University of Illinois psychologists present evidence that this equation only applies to Protestants—or, perhaps, people raised in a Protestant-dominated culture.

According to researchers Emily Kim, Veronika Zeppenfeld, and Dov Cohen, Jews and Catholics have a less-productive way of responding to uncomfortable thoughts and feelings: guilt.

“Two laboratory experiments found that Protestants produced more creative artwork when they were (a) primed with damnation-related words, (b) induced to feel unacceptable sexual desires, or (c) forced to suppress their anger,” the researchers write. “Activating anger or sexual attraction was not enough; it was the forbidden or suppressed nature of the emotion that gave the emotion its creative power.”

In the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Kim and her colleagues describe those two experiments, as well as their complementary analysis of a study of unusually brainy Californians. The high-IQ participants were initially interviewed in the 1920s, when they were children, and then subsequently over the following decades.

“Protestant participants were more likely to create better sculptures, and write better poetry, in conditions where they were induced to have unacceptable desires.”

The researchers focused on two sets of questions put to the study’s participants in the year 1950. They were asked whether they had “any major problems or marked difficulties related to sex;” if so, they were instructed to specify the nature of their issue. They were also asked to list their creative accomplishments over the past decade, either scientific or artistic.

“Protestants who had major problems or marked difficulties related to sexual taboos and depravity anxieties showed greater creative achievements in their lives,” they report. “They had more publications and creative accomplishments in other areas (and also) disproportionately chose jobs in the most creative occupations. “Neither of these results held for Catholic and Jewish participants.”

The first of their lab experiments featured 127 men, all of whom described themselves as religious: 60 white Protestants, 40 white Jews, and 27 Latino Catholics. (White Catholics were excluded because the researchers feared they “would be much more intermixed with, and influenced by, the wider Protestant culture.”)

Some of the participants were manipulated to feel uncomfortable. Specifically, they were given a photo album and asked to imagine it featured images of their own family. The woman designated as the participant’s “sister” was shown in the photographs as an “attractive, bikini-clad woman.” Thus the images produced disconcerting feelings of being sexually attracted to one’s own sibling.

After writing about their “family,” the participants were instructed to create a sculpture out of a ball of clay, and then write a short poem. Judges later assessed the creativity of their work.

The results: “Protestant participants were more likely to create better sculptures, and write better poetry, in conditions where they were induced to have unacceptable desires,” the researchers report. “Protestant participants also seemed more likely to have the desires stimulated by the sexually attractive woman show up in their art (as indicated by their sculptural phallic symbols).”

The final experiment, featuring 42 Protestants and 54 Catholic or Jewish undergraduates, focused on repressed anger. Half the participants were instructed to recall a time when someone made them very angry. They were asked to “visualize how you wanted to hurt the person,” and make a fist with their non-dominant hand as they wrote briefly about the incident.

The others recalled an emotionally neutral event. All then proceeded to demonstrate their creativity by coming up with humorous captions to five cartoons. Their work was later evaluated for wit, creativity, and overall quality.

The highest scores went to “Protestant participants who were specifically instructed to suppress their anger,” Kim noted. “Without this suppression manipulation, Protestants in the other conditions scored about the same as Catholic and Jewish participants.”

What’s more, she and her colleagues add, “the greater the aggressive content” of the cartoons, “the better art they produced.”

“Protestants reported being less angry as they wrote about the incident, and it was those who most disavowed their anger who produced the best work,” the researchers write. “Better work was produced by those who allowed their anger to fester and sublimated it into their work.”

So why did the Jews and Catholics apparently “reap none of the creative benefits of forbidden or suppressed emotions”? Pointing to other facets of the experiments (involving word-related tasks), the researchers report these participants “seemed to show greater guilt reactions” to the uncomfortable situations.

“Both Judaism and Catholicism have formal institutions and rituals that allow a person to atone for and repent one’s sins,” they note. Lacking that outlet, the Protestants apparently needed a way “to work through their forbidden emotions,” and found it in their creative pursuits.

These findings turn some clichés on their head. “Jews and Catholics have long been overrepresented among professional comedians and satirists,” the researchers note. (Think of the Jewish Jon Stewart and Catholic Stephen Colbert.)  “To the extent that these groups use humor as a channel for suppressed anger, we might expect them to show enhanced creativity on the cartoon captioning task when they are in the suppressed anger condition.”

Instead, Catholics and Jews who had been reminded of rage-inspiring events scored slightly lower on the quality of their captions (compared to those who had thought about something banal). Could it be they were feeling guilty about hanging on to those long-ago slights, and this dampened their wit?

It’s worth noting that guilt itself can be fodder for humor, as Jewish comedians such as Woody Allen have consistently demonstrated. Perhaps it’s a matter of becoming conscious enough of the guilt mechanism to find the humor in it.

In any event, these results suggest that what triggers a person’s creativity can vary depending upon his or her cultural upbringing. If you were raised in a tradition where there is no simple outlet for purging yourself of uncomfortable feelings, you might find it very useful to channel those emotions into writing, music, or art.

As Kim and her colleagues put it: “By provoking and then quelling anxiety, disbelief, insecurity, and doubt, culture works its magic.”

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 25 • 4:00 PM

Flying Blind: The View From 30,000 Feet Puts Everything in Perspective

Next time you find yourself in an airplane, consider keeping your phone turned off and the window open.


July 25 • 2:00 PM

Trophy Scarves: Race, Gender, and the Woman-as-Prop Trope

Social inequality unapologetically laid bare.


July 25 • 1:51 PM

Confusing Population Change With Migration

A lot of population change is baked into a region from migration that happened decades ago.


July 25 • 1:37 PM

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.



July 25 • 11:07 AM

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.


July 25 • 10:00 AM

Shelf Help: New Book Reviews in 100 Words or Less

What you need to know about Bad Feminist, XL Love, and The Birth of Korean Cool.



July 25 • 8:00 AM

The Consequences of Curing Childhood Cancer

The majority of American children with cancer will be cured, but it may leave them unable to have children of their own. Should preserving fertility in cancer survivors be a research priority?


July 25 • 6:00 AM

Men Find Caring, Understanding Responses Sexy. Women, Not So Much

For women looking to attract a man, there are advantages to being a caring conversationalist. But new research finds it doesn’t work the other way around.


July 25 • 4:00 AM

Arizona’s Double-Talk on Execution and Torture

The state is certain that Joseph Wood’s death was totally constitutional. But they’re looking into it.


July 24 • 4:00 PM

Overweight Americans Have the Lowest Risk of Premature Death

Why do we use the term “normal weight” when talking about BMI? What’s presented as normal certainly isn’t the norm, and it may not even be what’s most healthy.


July 24 • 2:00 PM

California’s Lax Policing of the Fracking Industry Has Put the Drought-Stricken State in a Terrible Situation

The state’s drought has forced farmers to rely on groundwater, even as aquifers have been intentionally polluted due to exemptions for the oil industry.


July 24 • 12:00 PM

What’s in a Name? The Problem With Washington’s Football Team

A senior advisor to the National Congress of American Indians once threw an embarrassing themed party that involved headdresses. He regrets that costume now, but knows his experience is one many others can relate to.


July 24 • 11:00 AM

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that’s fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.


July 24 • 10:58 AM

How the Supremes Pick Their Cases—and Why Obamacare Is Safe for Now

The opponents of Obamacare who went one for two in circuit court rulings earlier this week are unlikely to see their cases reach the Supreme Court.



July 24 • 9:48 AM

The People Who Are Scared of Dogs

While more people fear snakes or spiders, with dogs everywhere, cynophobia makes everyday public life a constant challenge.


July 24 • 8:00 AM

Newton’s Needle: On Scientific Self-Experimentation

It is all too easy to treat science as a platform that allows the observer to hover over the messiness of life, unobserved and untouched. But by remembering the role of the body in science, perhaps we humanize it as well.


July 24 • 6:00 AM

Commercializing the Counterculture: How the Summer Music Festival Went Mainstream

With painted Volkswagen buses, talk of “free love,” and other reminders of the Woodstock era replaced by advertising and corporate sponsorships, hippie culture may be dying, but a new subculture—a sort of purgatory between hipster and hippie—is on the rise.


July 24 • 5:00 AM

In Praise of Our Short Attention Spans

Maybe there’s a good reason why it seems like there’s been a decline in our our ability to concentrate for a prolonged period of time.


July 24 • 4:00 AM

How Stereotypes Take Shape

New research from Scotland finds they’re an unfortunate product of the way we process and share information.


July 23 • 4:00 PM

Who Doesn’t Like Atheists?

The Pew Research Center asked Americans of varying religious affiliations how they felt about each other.


July 23 • 2:00 PM

We Need to Start Tracking Patient Harm and Medical Mistakes Now

Top patient-safety experts call on Congress to step in and, among other steps, give the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wider responsibility for measuring medical mistakes.


July 23 • 12:19 PM

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that's fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.

Modern Technology Still Doesn’t Protect Americans From Deadly Landslides

No landslide monitoring or warning systems are being used to protect vulnerable communities.

The Big One

Today, the United States produces less than two percent of the clothing purchased by Americans. In 1990, it produced nearly 50 percent. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.