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Malevolent creativity: When evil gets innovative
We like to think of creativity as an inherently good thing. History and science say otherwise.
- Many of history's most cherished figures were fiercely creative individuals, but creativity by itself doesn't have a moral direction.
- "Malevolent creativity" is the production of innovative and novel solutions with the express intent of harming others.
- How does malevolent creativity arise, and how can we manage it?
Without a doubt, creativity is one of our most cherished characteristics. Without it, there would be no innovations, no new works of art, and everybody would be a major drag at parties. The most lauded figures in human history tend to be very creative — among them, Albert Einstein, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Leonardo da Vinci, to name a few.
You probably know and admire somebody in your life who just seems more innovative, generative, and cleverer than average (even if they're not exactly friendly).
But creativity isn't automatically a good thing. As a concept, creativity has no alignment, and in fact, it is just as easy to be creative in a destructive, cruel way as it is to be creative in a beautiful and benevolent way. Malevolent creativity is very much a reality.
What makes a malevolently creative person?
Malevolent creativity can be seen in a wide variety of actions — lying, terrorism, theft, abuse, spreading rumors, and so on. But these aren't in and of themselves malevolently creative acts. Researchers Daniel Harris, Roni Reiter-Palmon, and James Kaufman define malevolent creativity as, "the interaction among aptitude, process, and environment by which an individual or group produces a perceptible product that is both novel and useful as defined within a social context [that is] intended to materially, mentally, or physically harm oneself or others." So, a scammer recycling a tried-and-true con might be acting malevolently, but it's only malevolent creativity if there's some innovative aspect to that con, or if they devise an entirely unique con from whole cloth.
But what compels someone to be malevolently creative? Harris et al. hypothesized that, although creativity and intelligence are correlated, malevolently creativity is negatively correlated with emotional intelligence. The less capable you are at identifying and managing your own emotions and recognizing emotions in others, the more prone you are to produce unique but harmful solutions.
To test this, they administered a survey to a sample of college students that measured their emotional intelligence and asked these students to come up with as many original ideas for using either a brick or a shoe. Then several evaluators scored each solution by its creativity and its negativity (i.e., harmfulness). What they found was that students with lower emotional intelligence tended to come up with more malevolently creative ideas.
The researchers speculated that people with lower emotional intelligence "might be more willing to disclose negative ideas, do not know such ideas are inappropriate, or perhaps are not concerned with how others perceive them. If people lower in EI (emotional intelligence) are willing to generate negative solutions for others to see, then it is possible that those people are willing to act on such negative ideas."
Of course, malevolently creativity is associated with much more than low emotional intelligence. Another recent study — it was published in Frontiers in Psychology in 2016 — found that malevolent creativity was correlated with aggression, as well, which makes sense. Counterintuitively, it was also related to openness, or the personality trait associated with intellectual curiosity and a desire for novel experiences.
We generally conceive of close-minded people as being more prone to violence, but it seems likely that their violent tendencies are less innovative than open-minded people. Openness to experience has long been recognized as being associated with creativity, in general, and it seems as though malevolent creativity is no exception. Extroversion was also found to be correlated, which, much like openness, is also associated with greater creativity in general.
Keeping an eye on our evil genius
Really, the concept of malevolent creativity should not come as much a surprise. We are all familiar with the Nazis' unique and innovative approach to genocide. Ted Kaczynski left false clues in all of his bombs to mislead the FBI. Even despite his later regret, J. Robert Oppenheimer and the physicists at work on the Manhattan Project can be said to have demonstrated malevolent creativity.
Though it's tempting to think of progress and innovation as inherently good and useful, tempering this belief with an understanding of creativity's dark side is important if we are to leverage humanity's intellectual gifts to truly good and useful pursuits. Philosopher and educator Robert McLaren described it best in his essay "The Dark Side of Creativity":
"Now we must organize on a global scale, though it will require a mobilization of political will, international cooperation, and sacrifice seldom thought of by those whose reflections on creativity have as their frame of reference the artist's studio, the concert hall, or the quiet groves of literary contemplation. Otherwise the dark side will prevail, and we will have 'created' for ourselves our own oblivion."
Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.
- Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
- As the reality of their situation sets in, Nyles and Sarah decide to enjoy the repetitive awakenings.
- The film is perfectly timed for a world sheltering at home during a pandemic.
Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.
Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.
But science loves a good challenge<p>The mystery remained unsolved until 2005, when French scientists <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~audoly/" target="_blank">Basile Audoly</a> and <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~neukirch/" target="_blank">Sebastien Neukirch </a>won an <a href="https://www.improbable.com/ig/" target="_blank">Ig Nobel Prize</a>, an award given to scientists for real work which is of a less serious nature than the discoveries that win Nobel prizes, for finally determining why this happens. <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/spaghetti/audoly_neukirch_fragmentation.pdf" target="_blank">Their paper describing the effect is wonderfully funny to read</a>, as it takes such a banal issue so seriously. </p><p>They demonstrated that when a rod is bent past a certain point, such as when spaghetti is snapped in half by bending it at the ends, a "snapback effect" is created. This causes energy to reverberate from the initial break to other parts of the rod, often leading to a second break elsewhere.</p><p>While this settled the issue of <em>why </em>spaghetti noodles break into three or more pieces, it didn't establish if they always had to break this way. The question of if the snapback could be regulated remained unsettled.</p>
Physicists, being themselves, immediately wanted to try and break pasta into two pieces using this info<p><a href="https://roheiss.wordpress.com/fun/" target="_blank">Ronald Heisser</a> and <a href="https://math.mit.edu/directory/profile.php?pid=1787" target="_blank">Vishal Patil</a>, two graduate students currently at Cornell and MIT respectively, read about Feynman's night of noodle snapping in class and were inspired to try and find what could be done to make sure the pasta always broke in two.</p><p><a href="http://news.mit.edu/2018/mit-mathematicians-solve-age-old-spaghetti-mystery-0813" target="_blank">By placing the noodles in a special machine</a> built for the task and recording the bending with a high-powered camera, the young scientists were able to observe in extreme detail exactly what each change in their snapping method did to the pasta. After breaking more than 500 noodles, they found the solution.</p>
The apparatus the MIT researchers built specifically for the task of snapping hundreds of spaghetti sticks.
(Courtesy of the researchers)
What possible application could this have?<p>The snapback effect is not limited to uncooked pasta noodles and can be applied to rods of all sorts. The discovery of how to cleanly break them in two could be applied to future engineering projects.</p><p>Likewise, knowing how things fragment and fail is always handy to know when you're trying to build things. Carbon Nanotubes, <a href="https://bigthink.com/ideafeed/carbon-nanotube-space-elevator" target="_self">super strong cylinders often hailed as the building material of the future</a>, are also rods which can be better understood thanks to this odd experiment.</p><p>Sometimes big discoveries can be inspired by silly questions. If it hadn't been for Richard Feynman bending noodles seventy years ago, we wouldn't know what we know now about how energy is dispersed through rods and how to control their fracturing. While not all silly questions will lead to such a significant discovery, they can all help us learn.</p>
What happens if we consider welfare programs as investments?
- A recently published study suggests that some welfare programs more than pay for themselves.
- It is one of the first major reviews of welfare programs to measure so many by a single metric.
- The findings will likely inform future welfare reform and encourage debate on how to grade success.
Welfare as an investment<p>The <a href="https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/hendren/files/welfare_vnber.pdf" target="_blank">study</a>, carried out by Nathaniel Hendren and Ben Sprung-Keyser of Harvard University, reviews 133 welfare programs through a single lens. The authors measured these programs' "Marginal Value of Public Funds" (MVPF), which is defined as the ratio of the recipients' willingness to pay for a program over its cost.</p><p>A program with an MVPF of one provides precisely as much in net benefits as it costs to deliver those benefits. For an illustration, imagine a program that hands someone a dollar. If getting that dollar doesn't alter their behavior, then the MVPF of that program is one. If it discourages them from working, then the program's cost goes up, as the program causes government tax revenues to fall in addition to costing money upfront. The MVPF goes below one in this case. <br> <br> Lastly, it is possible that getting the dollar causes the recipient to further their education and get a job that pays more taxes in the future, lowering the cost of the program in the long run and raising the MVPF. The value ratio can even hit infinity when a program fully "pays for itself."</p><p> While these are only a few examples, many others exist, and they do work to show you that a high MVPF means that a program "pays for itself," a value of one indicates a program "breaks even," and a value below one shows a program costs more money than the direct cost of the benefits would suggest.</p> After determining the programs' costs using existing literature and the willingness to pay through statistical analysis, 133 programs focusing on social insurance, education and job training, tax and cash transfers, and in-kind transfers were analyzed. The results show that some programs turn a "profit" for the government, mainly when they are focused on children:
This figure shows the MVPF for a variety of polices alongside the typical age of the beneficiaries. Clearly, programs targeted at children have a higher payoff.
Nathaniel Hendren and Ben Sprung-Keyser<p>Programs like child health services and K-12 education spending have infinite MVPF values. The authors argue this is because the programs allow children to live healthier, more productive lives and earn more money, which enables them to pay more taxes later. Programs like the preschool initiatives examined don't manage to do this as well and have a lower "profit" rate despite having decent MVPF ratios.</p><p>On the other hand, things like tuition deductions for older adults don't make back the money they cost. This is likely for several reasons, not the least of which is that there is less time for the benefactor to pay the government back in taxes. Disability insurance was likewise "unprofitable," as those collecting it have a reduced need to work and pay less back in taxes. </p>
What are the implications of all this?<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="ceXv4XLv" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="3b407f5aa043eeb84f2b7ff82f97dc35"> <div id="botr_ceXv4XLv_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/ceXv4XLv-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/ceXv4XLv-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/ceXv4XLv-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> <p>Firstly, it shows that direct investments in children in a variety of areas generate very high MVPFs. Likewise, the above chart shows that a large number of the programs considered pay for themselves, particularly ones that "invest in human capital" by promoting education, health, or similar things. While programs that focus on adults tend to have lower MVPF values, this isn't a hard and fast rule.</p><p>It also shows us that very many programs don't "pay for themselves" or even go below an MVPF of one. However, this study and its authors do not suggest that we abolish programs like disability payments just because they don't turn a profit.</p><p>Different motivations exist behind various programs, and just because something doesn't pay for itself isn't a definitive reason to abolish it. The returns on investment for a welfare program are diverse and often challenging to reckon in terms of money gained or lost. The point of this study was merely to provide a comprehensive review of a wide range of programs from a single perspective, one of dollars and cents. </p><p>The authors suggest that this study can be used as a starting point for further analysis of other programs not necessarily related to welfare. </p><p>It can be difficult to measure the success or failure of a government program with how many metrics you have to choose from and how many different stakeholders there are fighting for their metric to be used. This study provides us a comprehensive look through one possible lens at how some of our largest welfare programs are doing. </p><p>As America debates whether we should expand or contract our welfare state, the findings of this study offer an essential insight into how much we spend and how much we gain from these programs. </p>
Finding a balance between job satisfaction, money, and lifestyle is not easy.
- When most of your life is spent doing one thing, it matters if that thing is unfulfilling or if it makes you unhappy. According to research, most people are not thrilled with their jobs. However, there are ways to find purpose in your work and to reduce the negative impact that the daily grind has on your mental health.
- "The evidence is that about 70 percent of people are not engaged in what they do all day long, and about 18 percent of people are repulsed," London Business School professor Dan Cable says, calling the current state of work unhappiness an epidemic. In this video, he and other big thinkers consider what it means to find meaning in your work, discuss the parts of the brain that fuel creativity, and share strategies for reassessing your relationship to your job.
- Author James Citrin offers a career triangle model that sees work as a balance of three forces: job satisfaction, money, and lifestyle. While it is possible to have all three, Citrin says that they are not always possible at the same time, especially not early on in your career.