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Creative people may be more likely to cheat

The art of the con: Creative people may be more apt to cheat, says U.S. study

A new university study suggests a troubling link between creativity and loose morals.

A new university study suggests a troubling link between creativity and loose morals.
Photograph by: Fotolia, Fotolia

What do Dr. Evil and lawyers have in common?

It sounds like the setup for a bad joke, but the answer is actually the key finding of a Harvard Business School study exposing the underbelly of creativity.

Across five experiments, each of which used between 71 and 111 people, researchers discovered an association between outside-the-box thinking and unethical behaviour. It appears the cognitive gymnastics that boost creativity are simultaneously a burden on honesty, as they foster the development of "original ways to bypass moral rules" — whether in a criminal mastermind trying to take over the world or an inventive attorney trying to win over a judge.

Francesca Gino, associate professor of business administration at Harvard, calls it "a first step in uncovering some of the potential dark consequences of being creative."

"Organizational behaviour, management and psychology literature all point to the benefits of creativity," said Gino, who co-authored the working paper with Dan Ariely of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.

"But we show that creativity also helps in the rationalization process. It allows people to come up with a lot of excuses and justifications for why their behaviour isn't bad."

The researchers report that participants with creative personalities who scored high on divergent-thinking tests were more likely to cheat; that this dispositional creativity was a better predictor of unethical behaviour than intelligence; and that people primed to think outside-the-box were more apt to behave dishonestly "because of their creativity motivation," and to have "greater ability to justify their dishonest behaviour."

A field study at an advertising agency replicated these effects, suggesting that people who work in positions that require creative thinking are likelier to be morally lithe — inflating expense reports and stealing office supplies, for example.

"It's a finding that's both interesting and alarming, and puts pressure on organizations to try to find ways in which they can foster creativity without these bad consequences," said Gino.

Canadian playwright Marty Chan admits that his innate creativity has seen him bend the rules of theatre to his benefit — such as breaking the "fourth wall" in his critically lauded play The Bone House. But he's skeptical of its likelihood of making him blur ethical boundaries.

"Being creative means questioning what's normal. But there's a difference between questioning and acting on it," said Chan, the Edmonton Public Library's writer-in-residence." Just because I turn a theatre convention on its head doesn't mean I'm about to go on a crime spree as well."

Sharon Ryan, an ethics instructor at the University of California-Los Angeles Extension, said the study's findings dovetail with previous research showing that people use their moral imagination to creatively think of ways to improve the quality of their group's existence.

As such, she said she believes the participants' backgrounds are of particular importance because people's group membership would cause them to be motivated by different things to cheat.

"I refuse to believe that creativity, one of humanity's most precious abilities, is predominantly evil in its application," said Ryan, who suggests the study's "depressing and dismal" findings are limited by the research design.

Because roughly 20 per cent of participants were business majors, and money was used as a carrot in the experiments, Ryan believes the results may have been skewed by these students' elevated desire to maximize profits, a goal prized by the business community.

But Gino reports that even after controlling for this factor, the results hold true.

"For progress in society, we need creative thinking," said Gino. "Our message is simply that individuals can't be left unchecked."

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Tags: psychology, this is why we cant have nice things, wtf

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