The Mad-Genius Paradox: Creativity Could Be Tied To Both Sanity And Madness

Researchers love to argue about whether there’s a link between creativity and mental illness. What if both camps are right?


You can probably recite, off the top of your head, at least a few creative geniuses who seemed out of their mind. We used Sylvia Plath, Vincent Van Gogh, and Michael Jackson as examples in our piece on creativity and madness last fall. That story surveyed recent evidence linking the two areas–especially the idea that creative types and other people who are vulnerable to mental illness share certain cognitive traits, such as a failure to filter out useless information.


Not all scientists are on board with the “mad genius” concept. In a commentary for the journal Frontiers in Psychology, psychologist Arne Dietrich of the American University of Beirut questions the evidence in support of such a connection. Dietrich emphasizes that the vast majority of creative people aren’t mentally ill, and the vast majority of mentally ill are not geniuses. In short, he says, creativity is not a sign of mental illness at all, but of mental health.

Vincent Van Gogh via Wikipedia

“You cannot make the blatant claim that the whole thing of mental illness is associated somehow to the whole thing of creativity,” Dietrich tells Co.Design. “There are people who are mentally ill and are creative, but the opposite is much more common. So the link is actually negative, not positive.”

Most researchers belong to one camp or the other, leaving the interested public to choose sides. But what if there’s a way for everyone to be right? That might sound crazy (or creative) but at least one researcher thinks it’s quite possible. In a paper still in press at Perspectives on Psychological Science, creativity scholar Dean Keith Simonton of the University of California at Davis uses a logical thought experiment to make the case for both sides of the debate.

Simonton calls this unifying concept the “mad-genius paradox.”

Here’s how that paradox works. (Keep in mind this is all theoretical.) First, let’s separate the world into two groups: creative people and non-creative people. Assume that, on the whole, the creative people have lower rates of psychopathology than non-creative people. So, when looking at the world through this creative-or-not lens, we find that creativity is closely connected with mental health.


Now let’s take the creative people from our first example and separate them into two new groups: creative geniuses and creative Joes (our term, not Simonton’s). There’s only a sprinkling of creative geniuses, but assume they suffer higher rates of psychopathology than the creative Joes do. So, when looking at the world through this lens, we find that extreme creativity is closely connected with mental illness.

In other words, at least in the abstract, both sides of the debate can be correct, depending on whether they divide the world into creative-or-not or genius-or-Joe. Again, this remains theoretical. But Simonton supports his ideas with some statistical justification. Hang with us for a moment as we follow him through some math, courtesy of Lotka’s Law (on the frequency of publication). Your reward will be a chart!

Let’s say we have 155 total creative people from the creative-or-not group above. Of these, 100 Joes have made a single creative contribution in their lives, and none shows any signs of mental illness. As we advance up the originality ladder, fewer people make contributions, and the rate of psychopathology rises slightly. So 25 people make two creative contributions, with three people showing symptoms of illness. Eventually we get to the genius end of the spectrum: one person making 10 creative contributions, with one person being mad.

We’ve charted Simonton’s data here (total creative contributions run along the bottom):

Now the paradox is easier to visualize. On one hand, only 14 out of 155 creative types suffer any symptoms of psychopathology (above, the total yellow dots), and two-thirds have no chance of madness (the first blue bar). So creativity links with mental health. On the other hand, the top creators run a very high risk of having the symptoms. So creative genius links with mental illness.


“People forget that geniuses represent fewer than 1% of all creators in a discipline,” Simonton tells Co.Design. “Hence, creators as a whole can have higher mental health than the general population even when vulnerability to psychopathological symptoms increases as one moves to the genius end of the distribution.”

Michael Jackson via Wikipedia

To repeat again: hypothetical, folks. But the thought experiment underscores Simonton’s main message. In a logical sense, at least, one side being right about creativity and mental illness doesn’t necessarily mean the other side is wrong. A more nuanced discussion, such as the “mad genius paradox,” makes both sides plausible. “The question is much more complex than people realize,” Simonton says.

Both Simonton and Dietrich think popular oversimplification contributes to the confusion. In his Frontiers commentary, Dietrich points to two common biases that perpetuate the problem: the availability heuristic, which makes an outcome seem more likely if it comes to mind easily, and the confirmation bias, which leads people to confirm their existing beliefs. So the fact that we can quickly name mad geniuses leads us to believe all artists are crazy, and to ignore those who are not.

“When you say there’s an association between madness and genius, then that statement is wrong–flat out,” says Dietrich. “But if you are more careful about how to define your terms, and circumscribe the incidences and situations in which this link might occur, then you might be right.”

About the author

Eric Jaffe is an editor at CityLab, where he writes about transportation, history, and behavioral science, among other topics, through the lens of urban life. He's also the author of The King's Best Highway (2010) and A Curious Madness (2014)