A new study from Harvard and Duke Universities* suggests that more creative people are more dishonest. As the authors put it:
Across all of our studies, we consistently find that greater creativity promotes dishonesty by increasing individuals’ ability to justify their unethical actions (p. 447).
This really bothered me, because one of my life’s goals has been to help people become more creative. So I closely read the article. I conclude that it’s a well-done study and the results are worth taking seriously.
Let’s dive into the details of the six studies they conducted.
Pilot study. The authors circulated a questionnaire to 99 employees of an advertising agency. The questionnaire asked how likely they would be to engage in eight ethically questionable behaviors (e.g. “Take home office supplies from work” or “Inflate your business expense report”). Then the questionnaire asked which department they worked in, and to what extent their job required creativity. Top managers also rated the creativity required of each department. The correlation between creativity and self-reported likelihood to behave dishonestly was .20 and .24, which is statistically significant (although not a very high effect size).
Study 1. Because intelligence test scores and creativity test scores are correlated, the authors had to make sure that it isn’t just high intelligence that makes someone more likely to be dishonest. They enlisted 97 college undergraduates, and gave them three creativity assessments (Gough’s adjective checklist, Hocevar’s Creative Behavior Inventory, and Kirton’s cognitive style questionnaire).
Then, each person completed three tasks–a perception task, a problem-solving task, and a multiple-choice task. In each of these tasks, each correct answer resulted in a small payment to the participant. For all three tasks, the task was designed so that participants reported their own performance; participants believed that they could overstate their performance without detection (although the researchers had secretly designed a way to track these deceptions). So the monetary reward, combined with the (perceived) inability for anyone to detect cheating, tempted each person to lie to get a larger monetary reward.
The correlations between the creativity tests and the level of dishonesty were fairly high, ranging from .23 to .53.
There’s one suspicious finding in Study 1: the creativity measures and the intelligence measures they used were not correlated. And yet, we know from decades of research on creativity and intelligence that in fact, these are correlated (at something between .20 and .40). (See Explaining Creativity, pages 52-57).
Study 2. They found that if you stimulate a creative mindset, it increases the degree of dishonesty, compared to a control task where the creative mindset was not stimulated.
Study 3. Why are creative people more dishonest? The researchers hypothesized that creativity increases a person’s ability to justify their unethical actions to themselves. This study’s design is a bit complicated, but basically, they found that people who were stimulated with a creative mindset were just as dishonest regardless of how easy it is to justify their dishonesty, but the control group (not stimulated for creativity) only was dishonest when the task design made it easier to justify their dishonesty. This confirmed their hypothesis that creativity makes it easier to justify unethical actions.
Study 4. This used the same procedure as Study 3, but this time giving the three creativity assessments to everyone in advance (rather than stimulating a creative mindset in half of the participants). The findings were similar: People who scored higher on the creativity assessments were more likely to lie even when the task was designed to make it harder to justify their unethical behavior. This also confirmed the hypothesis that creativity increases one’s ability to justify unethical actions to themselves.
Study 5. This study essentially combined Studies 3 and 4, by assessing creativity and then trying to stimulate a more creative mindset. Here’s what happened: For those people who scored low on creativity, the creative mindset stimulation increased their degree of lying. For people who scored high in creativity, the creative mindset stimulation didn’t result in more lying. In other words, creative people are already equipped to justify their lying, but less creative people need a creative mindset stimulation to prepare them to justify their lying.
The authors conclude that
This article casts a shadow on the widespread view that creativity always leads to ‘good’.
I wonder, however, if these studies are evidence that creativity leads to “bad” behavior in the real world. After all, these were inconsequential laboratory tasks that had no potential to hurt anyone. The total reward you could get, even if you lied every single time, was never more than $20. So why not lie? And, as the researchers point out, they designed the tasks on purpose so that participants were tempted to cheat, and so that participants believed no one would ever be able to detect their cheating.
I worry that these findings can be over-interpreted. For example, on page 455, the authors hint that U.S. society’s recent increase in innovation was responsible not only for the Internet and the iPhone, but also for ” a series of accounting scandals and the collapse of several billion-dollar companies,” for “academic dishonesty” by students, and for “scientific cheating” by research scientists. Is societal dishonesty and unethical business behavior really an unavoidable side-effect of greater innovation? That seems to be too big of a leap.
But I think this conclusion is warranted:
Thanks to greater creativity, people have more and diverse reasons to justify their own unethical behavior.
What do you think about these findings? Do they have implications for real-world behavior? What about in your own life?
*Gino and Ariely. (2012). The dark side of creativity: Original thinkers can be more dishonest. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 102, No. 3, 445-459.