The (lesser known) Dark Side of Flow-State

The Potential Negative Consequences of Flow—The Dark Side of Flow

            Csikszentmihalyi (1990) indicated, “while flow is a powerful motivator, it does not guarantee virtue in those who experience it” (p. 82). Although the literature is sparse with research on potential negative consequences of flow, Csikszentmihalyi (1990) hinted at a possible destructive side of flow stating that “like other forms of energy, from fire to nuclear fission, [flow] can be used for both positive and destructive ends” (p. 70). The danger of flow is evident in Csikszentmihalyi, Rathunde, and Whalen’s (1993) characterization of flow as “a subjective state that people report when they are completely involved in something to the point of forgetting time, fatigue, and everything else but the activity itself” (p. 59). The potential for flow’s negative consequences is also apparent in Csikszentmihalyi’s (1990) extended definition of flow as a state “in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it” (p. 4). Therefore, a culture that enhances flow is not necessarily “good” in any moral sense (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 81).

Schüler (2012) hypothesized that while “the deep involvement in a task is usually described as a positive feeling…it is also associated with a loss of self-awareness, which means not thinking about the compatibility between one’s current activity and one’s future goals and personal values” (p. 124-125). Schüler (2012) asserted, “flow might produce short-term and long-term goal and psychological conflicts” that may impair self-regulation (p. 125). Schüler (2012) hypothesized that narrowed attention during flow could impact athletes’ ability to note additional information that may be relevant for long-term self-regulation. The perceived sense of control in flow may result in athletes underestimating their vulnerability and losing time awareness. This researcher reviewed all research that specifically explored negative consequences of flow.

Dependence in big wave surfing. Partington, Partington, and Olivier (2009) conducted a study of the negative consequences of flow dependence in big wave surfers. They found that flowing big wave surfers experienced many signs of dependence as outlined by Bamber, Cockrill, Rodgers, and Carroll (2003) and Hausenblas and Downs (2002a, 2002b). Big wave surfers experienced tolerance (i.e., a need for continuous increase in the size and speed of the surf to get the same rewarding flow experience) (Partington et al., 2009). They also experienced social impairment and conflicts; surfing dominated their behaviors and took precedence over gaining employment, attending social events, and starting families (Partington et al., 2009). Big wave surfers continued to surf despite injury and harm to their health, which may be as a loss of control (Bamber et al., 2003; Sachs, 1982). Table 1.1 includes examples from Partington et al. (2009) of ways surfers described their dependence on surfing.

 Table 1.1

 Dependence in Big Wave Surfers (Partington et al., 2009)

Addiction -“Once you get familiar with that feeling, it’s an addiction” (p. 176)

Tolerance - “Nothing is ever enough,” “After each turn, you want to accelerate faster in to the next turn” (p. 176)

Withdrawal - “There is psychologically after all that is done, there is a depression almost” (p. 179)

Social conflicts - “My husband wants to have babies. I kinda don’t cause I want to keep surfing you know?” (p. 179)

Continuation - “I have heard that a separated rib is more annoying than a broken rib…I went on for over 6 months. I tried to pad it, put on wetsuits” (p. 179)

Note. Adapted from Schüler (2012) and Partington et al., (2009)


The concept of exercise dependence is controversial. It can be either positive or negative. Partington et al. (2009) indicated that the dependence of big wave surfers is negative because the surfers were not able to inhibit their desire to surf.  Partington et al., (2009) noted, “several of the surfers themselves confessed to being unable to function ‘normally’ in society because of their involvement in surfing” (p. 183).

Flow, online game addiction, and Internet addiction. Thatcher, Wrestschko, and Fridjhon (2008) investigated flow and addictive tendencies among more than one thousand Internet users. Problematic Internet use is “use of the Internet that creates psychological, social, school, and/or work difficulties in a person’s life” (Beard & Wolf, 2001, p. 378). Thatcher et al. (2008) found evidence of a “flow-addiction link” in individuals who had stronger experiences of flow and higher problematic Internet use. Kim and Davis (2009) also discovered an association between flow and problematic Internet use.

Schüler (2012) described the reward mechanism by which flow leads to addiction. It is the principle of operant conditioning, “the positive quality of the flow experience functions as a reward which enhances the probability that the activity will be performed again” (Schüler, 2012, p. 126). Strong motivation to engage in a challenging activity may lead to skill mastery, but individuals may also fall victim to “a powerful motivating force at the expense of conscious control” (Schüler, 2012, p. 126). Csikszentmihalyi (1990) stated,

…when a person becomes so dependent on the ability to control an enjoyable activity that he cannot pay attention to anything else, then he loses the ultimate control: the freedom to determine the contents of consciousness. Thus, enjoyable activities that produce flow have a potentially negative aspect. (p. 62)

 Does flow experience lead to risk? How and for whom. Schüler and Nakamura (2013) examined the relationship of flow and risk awareness/risky behavior. They analyzed the flow-self-efficacy-risk-taking relationship to determine whether levels of self-efficacy predicted the flow-to-risk-taking phenomenon. Schüler and Nakamura (2013) based their hypothesis on Bandura’s (1997) assertion that self-efficacy leads to risk-taking. Those with low self-efficacy avoid risk-taking and those with high self-efficacy engage in risk-taking (Schüler & Nakamura, 2013).

Schüler and Nakamura (2013) found that flow caused low risk awareness and high risk-taking behavior, but this relationship only occurred in inexperienced individuals “because experienced athletes have more information at their disposal when evaluating sports situations, they are less easily seduced into responding to flow with an underestimation of risk” (p. 376). Schüler and Nakamura (2013) concluded, “experienced athletes can get the most out of flow. They feel effective, but their experience in the sport situation does not lead them to underestimate risk or engage in risky behavior. In short, their expertise protects them from risks” (p. 325).

Schüler and Nakamura (2013) suggested their findings may have heightened importance in contemporary culture that encourages risky behavior across multiple domains. High-risk sports with potential for severe injury or death are becoming increasingly popular (Llewellyn & Sanchez, 2008; Llewellyn, Sanchez, Asghar, & Jones, 2008; Salanova, Lorente, & Martínez, 2012). Despite negative possibilities, individuals should seek flow due to its positive effects (Schüler & Nakamura, 2013). However, for beginners, flow may be a “double-edged sword” (Schüler & Nakamura, 2013, p. 327).

Flow requires a balance between skills and challenges. This principle requires individuals to increase challenges to experience flow and therefore increase their risks. The loss of self-awareness (transient hypo-frontality) in flow “prevents worrying about danger, and the restriction of perception to a limited field of activity, which prevents the perception of signs of danger, combined with a high sense of control can be highly problematic when performing high-risk sports” (Schüler, 2013, p. 130). The rewarding consequences of flow can be so great that individuals willingly place themselves as risk and even endanger their lives.

Flow in anti-social behavior. When people lack the flow experience in life, they may seek flow in destructive or anti-social activities (Schüler, 2012). Harari (2008) studied antipersonnel flow and found that soldiers lost a sense of self-awareness when completely absorbed in the act of killing. Reviewing subjective statements by solders in previous literature, Harari (2008) discovered that the soldiers experienced a “heightened sense of being alive”, a loss of self-awareness, concentration, and a distortion in time (p. 132). Schüler (2012) suggested that this loss of self-reflective awareness may enable soldiers to perform killing without worries about “morality and human lives” (p. 131). Harari (2008) proposed that, like flow, a positive characteristic of combat is that “one’s entire awareness is absorbed in the present moment” (p. 254). Harari (2008) illustrated the experience of flow in combat with the following quote from an American soldier.

It was hard to describe how he felt…it was like an epiphany. Close to death, he had never felt so completely alive…The only thing he could compare it to was the feeling he found sometimes when he surfed, when he was inside the tube of a big wave and everything around him was energy and motion and he was being carried along by some terrific force and all he could do was focus intently on holding his balance, riding it out. Surfers called it The Green Room. Combat was another door to that room. A state of complete mental and physical awareness. In those hours on the street he had not been Shawn Nelson, he had no connection to the larger world, no bills to pay, no emotional ties, nothing. He had just been a human being staying alive from one nano-second to the next, drawing one breath after another, fully aware that each one might be his last. He felt he would never be the same. (Bowden, 2001, p. 301-302)