Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Cultivating Emotional Creativity

We often think of creativity in cognitive terms:  as coming up with new thoughts and ideas.  Creativity also manifests itself in art, which is a bit different.  The truly creative artist feels something strongly and gives that experience a distinctive form.  In that transformation, there is emotional creativity:  feeling things in new ways.

A fascinating study by Averill and Thomas-Knowles examines emotional creativity and how it overlaps--and yet is distinct from--cognitive creativity.  One of their observations is that emotionally creative people find challenge where others see threat.  I would amend that slightly and suggest that emotionally creative people experience challenge *and* threat in particular uncertain situations.  Theirs is a more emotionally nuanced response to a situation, aware of both risk and reward and able to fashion adaptive responses that integrate both.  For example, when a trader perceives good reward but also meaningful tail risk in a trade, he or she might structure the trade through options that limit risk and preserve a good amount of upside.  As the trade works out, the simultaneous awareness of risk and reward does not vanish, and the trader might continue to manage the situation through delta hedging.

Consider an alternative:  the emotionally uncreative trader who treats risk and reward as polar opposites, becomes enamored of reward, and piles into a cash position in the name of "conviction".  Or the reverse:  the emotionally uncreative trader who identifies solely with risk and either puts on a ludicrously small position or freezes and misses opportunity altogether.  The emotionally uncreative person locks onto particular emotions to the exclusion of others and thus ends up responding in extreme and stereotyped ways.  Racial and cultural prejudice are examples of low emotional creativity.  Many psychological problems are the result of processing feelings in rigid ways, keeping us locked into patterned--and ultimately unfulfilling--behaviors.

From this perspective, successful coaching and counseling is an exercise in emotional creativity.  In cognitive therapy, for example, what happens is that people access fresh--and more constructive--feelings toward themselves and turn that emotional expression into a more positive internal dialogue.  Many times in counseling, it is internalizing the new emotional experience with a caring therapist that catalyzes the change in self-perception.  Behavior change starts with a change in emotional experience.  Expanding emotional experience is a gateway to changing behavior.

This is the problem with rote attempts at change such as routinely filling out a journal or checklist.  Yes, those can help us be more mindful of things to-do, but rarely do such cognitive devices shift our emotional experience.  One of the reason imagery techniques can be so useful in change is that they enable us to generate our own fresh experience and hence expand our emotional repertoire.  An example would be helping an angry spouse visualize a partner as being in pain and recruiting caring and empathy along with the feelings of frustration.  This could lead to empathic ways of communicating frustration--far more creative and productive than mere venting of negativity.

As Averill notes, emotions both generate creative activity and are the results of processing the world creatively.  Once we view emotions as experiences we can cultivate, not just ones that occur to us, it opens the door to fresh ways of generating new patterns of feeling and action.  A richer internal life ultimately contributes to a richer set of behaviors in challenging situations.

Further Reading:  Conflict and Creativity in Trading