Turning Repressed Emotions Into Great Art
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.
“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.”