Co.Design

Uh-Oh: Science Says Creativity And Dishonesty Go Hand In Hand

Turns out that people who are creative tend to cheat more. So how do you keep creativity from running amok?

Great scam artists are often described as “creative.” Jeffrey Skilling was a virtuoso of “creative accounting.” Bernie Madoff pulled off a “creative reinvention” of the old Ponzi scheme. And Charles Ponzi himself was a "creative promoter" and a "creative and ambitious businessman." Just last week, we met Mike Daisey, king of "creative license." Coincidence?

Perhaps not.

A recent article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology makes the claim that creativity walks hand in hand with loose ethics. Francesca Gino of Harvard University and Dan Ariely of Duke University conducted a series of experiments in which they asked subjects to complete various ethically ambiguous tasks. The result: Not only do naturally creative people cheat more than uncreative people, subjects cajoled into thinking outside of the box become cheaters, too. This suggests that the creative process isn’t just tied to dishonest behavior; it actually enables it--troubling news at a time when the corporate world treats innovation as an unimpeachable moral good.

"We were motivated by what we were reading in the press," Gino tells Co.Design. "There were articles about the creative Ponzi scheme of Bernie Madoff. These stories made us think there’s a link between creativity and dishonesty. Then we started thinking about examples in literature, movies, and comic books--this idea of the evil genius. We started to think that maybe there’s something to this idea."

At first, the authors collected data at an ad agency, where 99 employees with jobs requiring assorted levels of creativity were surveyed on how likely they’d engage in unethical behavior, such as stealing office supplies or inflating an expense report. The more creative the job, the higher the self-reported dishonesty, Gino and Ariely found. “We thought it was a good first set of data that definitely needed more investigation,” Gino says.

So they developed five experiments to test their hypothesis. In the first experiment, 97 students assessed on dispositional qualities of creativity and intelligence were asked to complete small tasks that measured their willingness to cheat. For instance: Look at a square full of dots for 1 second then decide which side of the square has more dots in it. Repeat.

Participants were told they’d earn half a cent for a correct answer on the left, and 10 times as much (5 cents) for a correct answer on the right. That created a conflict between answering correctly and maximizing profit.

When dots were clearly distributed one way or the other, subjects by and large answered correctly. But when there was some ambiguity, "creative participants" were more likely to say “right,” even when the answer was “left,” hinting at a willingness to fudge reality in the interest of personal gain. (What was Enron, after all, if not an exercise in saying "right" when they knew the answer was "left"?)

The effect isn’t limited to inherently creative people. In another experiment, Gino and Ariely induced a “creative mindset” in some subjects--using word scrambles and the like--to determine if creativity might temporarily promote dishonesty. All participants were then given a set of matrices to solve and allowed to grade their own work. Each correct answer earned a quarter of one cent. "The average number of matrices by which participants overstated their performance was greater in the creative-mindset condition … than in the control condition," according to the paper. In other words: "a creative mindset promotes dishonesty."

The authors believe the mechanism at work is something called “moral flexibility.” “Our creativity lets us come up with more reasons for why behaving unethical is not morally problematic,” Gino says. That’s not to say that accounting drones are, by default, more upstanding than artists, designers, writers, and poets. It’s the circumstances that count. “No matter what your industry, when creativity is important, you should be aware that you might be the most at risk of crossing ethical boundaries,” she says.

Obviously, you can’t generalize too broadly about a bunch of broke students twisting the truth to make a buck. The experiments took place in a lab, not a boardroom. But the implications are tough to ignore: Lying is a form of creativity, too.

So does that mean corporations keen to project a squeaky-clean image ought to forget about innovating? Of course not, Gino says: “Managers should keep on prizing creativity, but should also keep an eye on the process used to achieve creative outcomes. We tend to see morality and ethics as something in the background. This research shows that ethics need to be brought to the fore.”

[H/t HBS]

[Image: Lasse Kristensen/Shutterstock]

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21 Comments

  • Bruno_Duarte

    Hardly - the study confuses creativity with accomplishment. The second task, that of distributing matrices and asking participants self-grading, admits creativity is responsible for inflated grading whereas it is achievement that distorts the belief on correct answering. Thus, those who attained correct combinations in word scrambles, a popular challenge, are prone to accept their answer given in the matrix as correct.

    The square challenge blurred participation in that higher reward skewed risk/reward. It contradicts creativity in that creativity implies a choice between the known and the unknown (as the matrices' assessment does) that, although often mimetically related to constance/creativity duality, is so when results are enunciated, when creativity is presented as a cause of increased rewards.

    Although layman studious of creativity, several other bodies of knowledge suggest it is the alteration of conditions in the regular activities of individuals prone to creative activities, as those in a routinely tasked control group, that may assess dishonesty as a component of creativity. 

    Thus, if school band musicians were handed two music sheet for study and, in a particular difficult segment, were conceded the alternative path of improvisation, a standard measure of bureaucracy / creativity could be built. The control could be handed either the same challenge or that associated with its profession, say typing seventy words per minute, eighty, ninety and so forth, rewarded (as typists often are) yet with the possibly of dabbling senselessly to attain their reward when knowing these assessments would be made public (thus, in the latter phase, ensuring control whilst omitting a secondary reward adjoint to, for instance, upward recognition).

  • jmco

    Creative people are just like other people. Most are good but, a few are bad. 

    I think it is also important to differentiate what the creativity is for. A creative CEO with a shady background may be dishonest more than a creative medical doctor treating cancer in children or a top art director at a design studio. Who, what, when, how all matter in creativity and ethics. Just like with leadership and ethics. History and ethics. etc. 
    BTW: people get really creative and dishonest during stressful urgent times. That is in part how wars are won.

  • Mysticalmist

    Every human being is creative. Then, everybody is unethical, so at the end, the ethics don't exist at all. 

  • hm

     "Artists use lies to tell the truth". All you ever need to know, you can learn from Alan Moore. ;)

  • Danny

    I don't understand how the test they mentioned indicates an ethical question ever arose. If you have to choose between A and B, and all other things are equal (and neither side more likely than the other), but B is worth more than A if you're right, why would you ever choose A on a question where you don't know it's the answer? 

    Even if you had said that they quickly realized that one right answer of "B" would make up for ten wrong answers of "A" and so chose "B" for every question without even doing the work, the fact that no rules were laid out beforehand makes it hard to see where the ethical dilemma is. They're just applying logic to the task that was handed to them.

    Now if it had been word problems or thought experiments or something where they got five cents every time they fired a bad worker and half a cent every time they kept a good worker, and they decided to fire everyone, THAT would be more of an indicator of unethical thinking.

  • LMrumin8

    "We tend to see morality and ethics as something in the background."  We who?  I cannot accept the premis that Creativity promotes"loose ethics". It may be rather an indicator of pervasive social deficits.  After all, not all liars are creative. 

  • Phunk

    Ad agency CHEAT?
    After our marketing department audit the last 3 years of our external ad agency invoices we found the invoices was fudged on the hours charged vs what aired ohhh on the factor of 60 grand a year... please explain...

  • J Kevin Byrne


    Yes, I noticed the article doesn't offer us working definitions for "creativity" or "cheating," and I'd have to agree Madoff doesn't come to mind right away as creative. It could be that "intuitives," famous for making leaps, are guilty of "cheating." Still, we need proper language to set the stage for such logic and study (otherwise we too may be cheating).

  • houseoftang

    I have somehow learned less about creativity by reading about this study than when I'm sleeping.

    (An ad agency? Really?)

  • Ayn Roberts

    When the participants are cajoled into thinking "outside of the box", what exactly is that saying? Is it REALLY about thinking "creativity" or is it thinking "outside of the rules"? In this case, I believe there is a strong argument for the latter.

    With this is mind, I think you hit the nail on the head when you say "Lying is a form of
    creativity". If we believe that an act of dishonesty is actually also an
    act of creativity then the title should perhaps be amended to say
    "Creativity and [Creativity] Go Hand-in-Hand..."

    Basically, the entire premise of studying this question is flawed because of our inability to disassociate disorder with the idea of creativity.

  • Nathan

    It is not creativity that which bears unethics... Rather, it's creativity under the signs of profit and corporative demands in the consummer society. 
    Maybe I'm making hasty conclusions, but I shall not agree with this article and it's references. Let's realise that If there were not corporations as well as the whole financial/capitalist system, surely there would not exist corrupted creativeness. 
    So, that's just a matter of changing the whole for change its derivative aspects. 

  • Webegg

    What a load of old tripe.
    This research has nothing to do with the creativity of individuals but shows collective tendancies of immoral agencies. Answer, manage your teams better and don't encourage unethical practice.

  • DMC

    "At first, the authors collected data AT AN AD AGENCY..."  and the results showed that those people were dishonest?  No sh*t sherlock...

  • Marc Posch

    To call Madoff a creative is an insult to creative people. He was a technocrat to the core who played the system to the extreme. In the same vein you could also label the Nazis as creative for doing their job. Idiotic study that only proves you can prove whatever populist you want with a twisted setup. BS

  • Lesley Wexler

    Everyone can be dishonest, but creative dishonesty is more nimble. Just because you are creative, doesn't mean you are unethical. It all depends on how you use that creativity. Also, one has to take in account, that just because there are rules, does not make them a good idea. I think creative people see problems with some rules that might not either be purely ethical or fair. Who is to say that every law, corporate rule, or societal norm is the right thing? Non-creatives will just follow, creatives will question.