The Destructiveness of Anger

Can anger, criticism and negative feedback generate more creative and better ideas than encouragement and positive feedback?

That's the hypothesis explored in a provocatively-titled article in Wired Magazine by Jonah Lehrer entitled The Creativity of Anger.

Why does anger have this effect on the imagination? I think the answer is still unclear – we’re only beginning to understand how moods influence cognition. But my own sense is that anger is deeply stimulating and energizing. It’s a burst of adrenaline that allows us to dig a little deeper, to get beyond the usual superficial free-associations. In contrast, when our mood is neutral or content, there is no incentive to embrace unfamiliar possibilities, to engage in mental risks or brash new concepts. (Why rock the boat?) The absence of criticism has kept us in the same place. And this is why anger makes it easier to think different.

The article has been making the rounds on social channels and stirring up debate all day. Some people are lauding it as a breath of fresh air, while others are aghast at the attack on the sacred cow of brainstorming in a positive, non-judgmental feedback loop.

Personally, I think this sort of thinking leads us down a dangerous and destructive path. Here's why:

Anger has long-term negative effects

Lehrer himself acknowledges that "anger is exhausting and 'resource depleting.' Although angry subjects initially generated more ideas, their performance quickly declined. By the end of the idea-generation session, they were performing at roughly the same level as everyone else."

The long-term psychological effects of treating people in that manner, however, are far more destructive than simply bringing them back to normal. If someone is asked to go to work day in, day out in an environment where they are yelled at, berated, attacked and treated with a lack of respect, they will either quit, or they will suffer serious emotional consequences. Or both. Eventually, they will be drained of any motivation or creative energy, and their ability to come up with good ideas will be depleted altogether.

A positive environment fosters far better creative energy, and also treats people with the kind of respect that allows them to be productive over the long term.

Anger loses its effect when used too frequently

Anger can be a very powerful tool in the arsenal of a manager, director or CEO. Someone who is usually very even-keeled will make everyone sit up and notice if they let a little anger show in rare moments when it's warranted.

Like the boy who cried wolf, however, anger can be overused to the point where it is simply ignored. If you're the type of person who is always yelling, attacking or criticizing, people won't pay any attention to you anymore, other than to dismiss you as someone who's "always negative". 

There's a time and a place for criticism

Someone needs to play devil's advocate. Someone needs to not succumb to groupthink, or to be afraid to point out that the Emperor is parading naked down 5th Avenue. I agree with this wholeheartedly.

But there's a time and a place for this, and the brainstorm session is not it. Once ideas have been generated and presented, this is when they need to be evaluated and narrowed down. Trying to do this too early prevents lateral thinking. Some of the most successful ideas in history were born from things that, at first glance, sounded ridiculous.

And when that criticism is delivered, it needs to be in the right format. Anger is not the same as critical thinking. A calm discussion about the merits of an idea is far different from a free-for-all session à la Steve Jobs MobileMe example, full of finger-pointing and blame-laying.

We're not in primary school. Capable adults should be able to take constructive criticism and construct something from it, not self-destruct. However, the keyword there is constructive criticism. Attacking an idea viciously without suggesting any kind of solution or direction to fix it is entirely useless. The best creative directors know how to provide criticism that motivates solutions, and the best creative minds know how to take it and make something from it.

Directionless anger produces directionless ideas

The world is watching as the Middle East's political landscape changes before our eyes. Angry and fed up with decades of restricted freedoms and dictatorial rule, citizens of countries from Egypt to Libya are taking to the streets and demanding change. The lesson here – one of many – is that if you push people to the brink for long enough, they will fight back.

However, the questions that are only beginning to be asked in the context of the Middle East are, what comes next? Once the old leaders have been toppled, who will take over? What's the vision for the future of each country, and who will rule?

From destruction, we need creation. Anger can tear down the old, but it's fairly useless at building the new. The next leaders of the "Arab Spring" countries will – hopefully – need to bring something else to the table other than anger. They will need vision, a spirit of cooperation, and a positive energy to make tomorrow better than yesterday. Without these critical ingredients, anyone who takes on the daunting task of leadership will surely fail to deliver the changes that the people are hoping for.

Likewise in the business world. Mere anger is not enough. It can motivate people to act, but it can also motivate them to simply attack and destroy one another without accomplishing anything. Yelling at a creative team will simply crush their spirits. To motivate them to solve a problem, it might be useful to make them angry about a problem, and give them a path or a direction to help solve it. That's the only way that destructive anger can become constructive anger.

Nothing is more crippling than the fear of failure

Lehrer claims that comfort in the status quo can produce mediocre ideas. The fear of failure, however, can produce even worse ones.

If people aren't motivated to take risks because they fear for their jobs, then they will always come back with what's "comfortable" and "safe". Would the team who created MobileMe at Apple – however panned – have been better off not even coming up with the idea? Yes, it was problematic, and no, it was not a big success, but as an industry observer, I have to wonder if a better solution might have been to look at how to fix the problems before launch, as opposed to attacking the team who came up with the idea?

Taking another company you might have heard of – Google – as an example, there have been at least as many failures as successes. Google Buzz, Google Wave and – though the jury's still out – Google Plus come to mind as projects that failed to live up to expectations or hype. Now, we don't know whether the teams behind these initiatives got the same kind of treatment from Google as the MobileMe team got at Apple. I would suspect not, though. Google employees are encouraged to innovate and try new things, even if they don't always work. It's the kind of culture that leads to original, out-of-the-box thinking.

A word about the study itself

Finally, it should be noted that the "data" on which Lehrer bases his article is entirely suspect. Both experiments – the brainstorm exercise and the art collage exercise – rely on a panel of "experts" to judge the quality of the work produced. This is qualitative judgment that is entirely subjective, and cannot be measured. Just because a panel of artists claimed that the angry people produced "better" art does not make it so.

We are preconditioned in our society to assume that angst produces better artists. But maybe we're just looking for angst-ridden art because we're told that it's better? There's no way to know.

A better experiment would be to have two groups – a test and a control – try to come up with a creative solution to a real-world business problem, and then measure the results of their respective solutions in dollars and cents. That would be a test of what is a "better" idea, and its results would be quantifiable.

Until then, though, I will continue to believe that anger is destructive, not creativity-enhancing. And that the best ideas are born from being energized and motivated to change something, not from being attacked. Anger can inspire tearing down the old, but it takes vision to build the new.