National Post

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Monday, April 05, 1999

Domestic strife breeds creativity
McGill University study

Robert Matthews
The Sunday Telegraph

The most highly creative people come from homes where parents are constantly at each other's throats, according to new research that contradicts previous theories about the origins of genius.

For years, psychologists have claimed that creativity is a delicate flower most likely to emerge among those raised by warm and loving parents. No longer: Now it seems that there is nothing like seeing your parents scream blue murder at each other to kindle the creative spirit.

The finding, by a research team at McGill University in Montreal, has surprised experts. It has emerged from the first long-term study of the origins of creativity among ordinary people.

Psychologists have tried sifting through the background of highly creative people, looking for anything in their upbringing that could explain their gifts. In the 1950s, researchers in the United States set up a study of more than 300 children and their parents aimed at revealing the effects of different child-rearing practices. Now a team of psychologists has compared the home-life of those children -- now adults in their forties -- with measures of their creativity to see what links exist between the two.

To their surprise, the researchers could find no link with how warm and loving the parents were, or how much freedom they gave their children -- contradicting research done previously.

Instead, only one significant link emerged: That the most creative people came from homes where the parents were at war with each other.

"Our results showed a reliable, positive association between parental conflict and later creativity," said Dr. Richard Koestner, the leader of the research team.

"Individuals who experienced a preschool family environment that was filled with parental conflict were found as adults to possess a greater number of creative personality attributes," he said.

In contrast, creativity turned out to be unrelated to how warm parents were toward their children or how restrictive they were.

The team admits the findings are a blow to current theories of the origins of creativity in children, which focus on the need for so-called "psychological safety" and freedom.

"Parental conflict would be expected to severely undermine children's experiences of psychological safety," Dr. Koestner said.

Searching for explanations, Dr. Koestner and his colleagues suggest that children brought up by warring parents may give up looking for praise from authority figures and decide to plough their own furrow -- a hallmark of creativity.

The results of the study, published in the current issue of the Journal of Research in Personality, have also left other experts stunned.

Dr. Anthony Storr, Britain's most distinguished expert on the origins of creativity, said, "This is an interesting finding, and one can see that if you were brought up in a home where the parents are quarrelling, there would be a need for a person to be creative to escape from that."

Dr. Storr added, however, that he believed that human creativity is so complex that no single influence is likely to dominate.

"There are so many factors involved, like IQ, personality, and interests, as well as personal circumstances," he said. "This is one more to put in the melting pot."

Dr. Koestner and his colleagues stressed that recent research involving identical twins has pointed to a powerful genetic influence on creativity.

Parents thinking of staging mock rows with their spouse in an attempt to spawn the next Einstein are unlikely to succeed, according to Dr. Koestner, who pointed out that the new findings apply strictly to verbal and artistic creativity.

"There is good evidence to suggest that scientific creativity is distinct from artistic creativity," Dr. Koestner said.

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