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?
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.”