creative cheatingDrs. Francesca Gino and Dan Ariely (the latter is an author of several fascinating social psychology books) recently published a highly creative article on the potential dark side of creativity. Obviously, creativity is a highly valued ability, especially in today’s rapidly evolving, complex world. Creative products sell better and creative companies thrive in competitive environments. Who could argue about the value of creativity? Certainly not Apple and probably not most of its customers.

But Drs. Gino and Ariely questioned whether creativity always leads to good outcomes. Specifically, they proposed that creativity may actually lead to greater dishonesty and cheating because creativity helps people justify and rationalize their unethical choices and behaviors. In other words, a creative mind can more easily search for inventive ways to engage in dishonest behavior yet maintain a positive, moral view of one’s self.

They first carried out a pilot study that surveyed employees at an advertising agency. The respondents who reported themselves as most likely to consider engaging in unethical behavior also described their jobs as requiring relatively greater amounts of creativity. Well, these findings were interesting, but after all, they were merely correlational. That means that the results only showed that there may be some kind of relationship between creativity and dishonesty, but not that there is necessarily and causal relationship between these two concepts.

So the researchers next embarked on a series of five studies that put this idea to various empirical tests (the best way to demonstrate cause and effect relationships). Across these studies, they found that people who had creative personalities were generally more likely to cheat than people who were less creative and that intelligence did not predict dishonesty.

They also found that they could “prime creativity” by providing cues or triggers for creativity. The prime required participants to create sentences using words such as new, novel, ingenious, etc. People primed for a creative state of mind became more likely to engage in dishonest behavior when they were presented with tasks that they could cheat on without thinking they could be caught. The participants were also given small monetary incentives for cheating. See the actual article for a full accounting of their experimental procedures and details about their methods.

So what do these findings mean? Should we suspect that most creative people are likely to cheat and be unethical? Let’s hope not! For one, this study was merely one of the very first to look at the possible relationship between dishonesty and creativity. Secondly, the tasks used were mostly convenient, laboratory tasks that don’t exactly mimic real world ethical dilemmas. We can’t exactly conclude that creative people typically cheat whenever they can.

Nonetheless, these results do suggest that creativity could have a downside. We need to learn much more about this issue. We may discover certain conditions under which creativity may lead someone down a primrose path. If so, one might then be able to implement policies and procedures in companies that could maximize creativity while mitigating negative fallout.

But as I said, we need to learn much more about the relationship between creativity and dishonesty before we jump to conclusions or start consider changes in policies. In the meantime, if you’re a creative person, I wouldn’t worry too much about the world suddenly looking at you with a jaundiced eye. But perhaps you might want to carefully ponder before you start trying to justify questionable behavior!

Light bulb and brain photo available from Shutterstock.