New research from the US suggests that creative or original thinkers can be less honest and may be more likely to cheat than less creative people, perhaps because they are better able to invent excuses to “explain” their actions. Lead researcher Dr Francesca Gino of Harvard University, and co-author Dr Dan Ariely, of Duke University, write about their findings in the 28 November online issue of Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, a publication of the American Psychological Association.

Gino told the media that:

“Greater creativity helps individuals solve difficult tasks across many domains, but creative sparks may lead individuals to take unethical routes when searching for solutions to problems and tasks.”

Gino and Ariely write that despite the fact dishonesty and innovation are widely discussed in the popular press, the link between them has not been measured scientifically.

For their study, they first assessed participants’ creativity and intelligence using recognized psychological tests and measures. The participants were then invited to take part in five sets of experiments, for which they were given a small sum of money just for showing up. All the experiments involved offering them more money if they cheated on the tasks or tests they faced.

In one experiment, the participants were given sheets with general knowledge questions and asked to circle the answers, then transfer their results onto another multiple choice sheet to hand in. But the person supervising the test said there had been a mistake and the second sheet had faint marks on the correct answers (thus participants had the opportunity to cheat and pretend their answers were the same as those already marked with a faint circle). The participants were told they would be paid more for correct answers.

In another experiment, the participants were given drawings showing a diagonal line with dots dispersed on either side. They had to say if there were more dots on one side than on the other. There were 200 trials altogether, half of which where it was virtually impossible to say which side had more dots. But participants were told they would be paid ten times more for each time they said there were more dots on the right (the amounts were 5 cents versus 0.5 cents).

From their experiments, the researchers found participants with creative personalities were more likely to cheat than their less creative counterparts, and that a disposition towards creativity is a better predictor of dishonesty than intelligence.

In addition, they discovered that:

“… participants who were primed to think creatively were more likely to behave dishonestly than those in a control condition … and that greater ability to justify … dishonest behavior explained the link between creativity and increased dishonesty,” and they also showed “that dispositional creativity moderates the influence of temporarily priming creativity on dishonest behavior.”

Gino and Ariely conclude:

“The results provide evidence for an association between creativity and dishonesty, thus highlighting a dark side of creativity.”

They suggest “people who are creative or work in environments that promote creative thinking may be the most at risk when they face ethical dilemmas”.

The authors do, however, note some of the important limitations of their research, such as the fact the incentives to cheat were all money-based.

They suggest future studies should look into the extent to which creativity influences short-term desires compared with long term aspirations where people’s self-control is challenged. For instance, a study relating to the former would ask whether creative people are more likely to “cheat” and eat a slice of cake while on a weight loss program (perhaps aided by a greater ability to invent more “plausible” excuses for doing so)?

Written by Catharine Paddock PhD