Study: Dishonesty May Actually Lead to Greater Creativity

What dishonesty and creativity have in common

Acting dishonestly leaves people feeling less constrained by rules which enhances creativity. Creative people are also more likely to come up with creative justifications of their immoral behaviors.

Dishonesty involves breaking the social principle or rule that people should tell the truth. Creative people use divergent thinking which requires them to break some “rules” to construct new associations between previously unassociated elements.

So it seems like both creativity and dishonesty involve rule breaking, so how are dishonesty and creativity linked to each other? Are dishonest people more creative, or are creative people more dishonest? And why is that? Let’s find out.

Dishonesty can lead to creativity

A new study by Gino, Scott & Wiltermuth (2014), published in Psychological Science, examined whether dishonest behavior can lead to greater creativity.

To measure the participants’ creativity, the experimenters used 3 tests:

  1. Participants had 3 min to figure out, using only a few objects on a table, how to attach a candle to a wall so that the candle would burn properly (not dripping wax on the table or the floor).
  2. Participants had 20 seconds to solve a mathematical problem. Participants were shown one of 10 matrices at a time, each with a 12 three-digit numbers, and the task was to find two numbers in the matrix that added up to 10.
  3. Participants had 5 min to solve 17 word association items. Each item consisted of a set of three words, e.g. sore, shoulder, sweat. They then had to find a word that was logically linked to them. The most succesful participants thought of uncommon associations instead of fimilar associations.

To measure the participants’ dishonest behavior, the experimenters used a coin-tossing task:

  • Participants were asked to guess whether the outcome of a coin toss would be heads or tails. After indicating their prediction, they had to press a button to toss the coin virtually. They were asked to press the button only once. Participants reported whether they had guessed correctly and received a $1 bonus if they had.

People were considered dishonest if they overreported how many times they had guessed correctly. The authors found that after people had behaved dishonestly, they felt less constrained by rules, and for this reason, they were also more creative.

The authors suggest that people may become more creative after behaving dishonestly because acting dishonestly leaves people feeling less constrained by rules which enhances creativity.

Creativity can lead to dishonesty

A study by Gino & Ariely (2012) found that the most creative participants, measured on a divergent thinking scale, tended to cheat more. The experimenters also found that:

  • Dispositional creativity is a better predictor of unethical behavior than intelligence
  • Participants who were primed to think creatively were more likely to behave dishonestly because of their creativity motivation, and
  • they had a greater ability to justify their dishonest behavior
  • People who work in more creative positions are more morally flexible (a field study)

These results suggest that there is a “dark side” of creativity. The authors suggest that when people are creative, they are more likely to come up with creative justifications of their immoral behaviors which makes them more likely to behave  dishonesty, and dishonest behavior may lead to greater creativity, and so on:

“…the individuals most likely to behave dishonestly and the individuals most likely to be creative may be one and the same. Indeed, highly creative people are  more likely than less creative people to bend rules or break laws” (pp. 973-974).

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