10 Feb 2011  Working Papers

The Dark Side of Creativity: Original Thinkers Can Be More Dishonest

Executive Summary — Anyone who has spent significant time with artists knows that creative genius often comes with a dark side. This paper offers experimental evidence, specifically with regard to the relationship between creativity and unethical behavior. Research involving four experiments with university students was conducted by Francesca Gino of Harvard Business School and Dan Ariely of the Fuqua School of Business. Key concepts include:

  • Creative students who showed a natural aptitude for divergent thinking tended to cheat more than linear thinkers.
  • Creativity is a better predictor of unethical behavior than intelligence.
  • Students who were deliberately induced to think creatively were, in turn, more likely to cheat than those who weren't primed to think outside the box.
  • Creative people are more likely to cheat in part because their creativity helps them to come up with ingenious explanations to justify their unethical behavior.

 

Author Abstract

Creativity is a common aspiration for individuals, organizations, and societies. Here, however, we test whether creativity increases dishonesty. We propose that a creative personality and creativity primes promote individuals' motivation to think outside the box and that this increased motivation leads to unethical behavior. In four studies, we show that participants with creative personalities who scored high on a test measuring divergent thinking tended to cheat more (Study 1); that dispositional creativity is a better predictor of unethical behavior than intelligence (Study 2); and that participants who were primed to think creatively were more likely to behave dishonestly because of their creativity motivation (Study 3) and greater ability to justify their dishonest behavior (Study 4). Finally, a field study constructively replicates these effects and demonstrates that individuals who work in more creative positions are also more morally flexible (Study 5). The results provide evidence for an association between creativity and dishonesty, thus highlighting a dark side of creativity.

Paper Information

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Comments

    • Benjamin Stockton
    • CEO, STS International Inc

    Professor Gino must be very dishonest :-} given the creativity of this panel of studies.

    However, I am creative too. I can (and do) frequently think of things that I restrain myself from doing. The role of individual agency, moral choice, self restraint in regulating such impulses would be a great study. I can't imagine, at this point, how to get at those issues (without cheating).

     
     
     
    • William Scudder
    • President, Scudder Financial Communications

    I agree. The title is quite creative and the work is a fraud. This is neither science nor business. Shame on you Harvard.

     
     
     
    • Benjamin Stockton
    • CEO, STS International Inc

    Sorry, Mr. Scudder, my phrasing was tongue in cheek support for the study, a mere play on words to showcase the dynamic that is raised when one associates creativity with moral laxity.

    Though none of us should think that finding a correlation is the same as finding a cause, the presence of a relationship between creativity and dishonesty means we need to understand more - I was also suggesting rather gently that for people to show a tendency in testing does not mean that they will exhibit that tendency in life situations where the moral or ethical implications might "carry more freight" than the test instrumentation detected such that creative people may or may not be more dishonest in "real life" situations.

    Thanks Mr. Scudder for your energetic rejection - it makes me want to read this study more closely.

     
     
     
    • Guillermina Hernandez-Gallegos, Ph.D.
    • President, GHGallegos Consulting

    I read the article and wonder if the respondents were the same across all studies. If not, how do you then account for the multiplicity of intervening variables that can influence ethical behaviour-- religiosity, locus of control, early moral upbringing, parental education, prior incarceration, and the list could be endless. The results are indeed intriguing and suggest a rich area for additional research. I've always found that generalizations from small samples can help frame future more rigorous studies.

     
     
     
    • Anonymous

    I am both creative and intelligent and consider myself very honest. I went through schools, college, and graduate college and never cheated. I researched and wrote all my own papers and did very well on tests by studying. My creativity helped me to do well without considering dishonest behavior, so I do not agree with this study. I am truthful and honest in my relationships, yet also enjoy fantasy and have a sense of wonder and create works of art. The artists I know also have integrity, so I would like to know who was studied.

     
     
     
    • Anonymous

    Creativity cuts both ways. Business need creative defenders (rather than mere policy enforcers). We need security and fraud-protection organizations that think like bad guys--hopefully outhink them--and defend accordingly.

     
     
     
    • Basil Cox
    • Retired

    Personalizing research findings does not ordinarily advance the state of our knowledge. The fact that one person could be both creative and honest says nothing about a broader universe of people. The findings of this research seem supported by common sense. It will be interesting to see if they are supported by further research.

     
     
     
    • John Bradley
    • Financial Analyst, National Marketing and Learning

    Dear Anonymous #5

    Just because you are creative and honest does not mean the results of the study are invalid. Just because some people are creative doesn't automatically mean that they are dishonest. What the study does tell us however is that people who have tested to be more creative have a tendency to be more dishonest. What you are is anecdotal and not statistical. This research seems very interesting, especially from the view point of a morally ambiguous financial analyst (only joking).

    Once concern that I have that would come out of this work is if companies then test for creativity and don't hire based on the results of a correlation found.

     
     
     
    • Paul Nicholas
    • Adviser for Leadership Development, Herefordshire Council

    This is fascinating and extremely thought provoking - thank you.

    I tend to shy from using the "thinking outside the box" metaphor, but on this occasion...

    Let's remember that this "box" - containing all sorts of "accepted" concepts, rules and behaviours for a group - is a human construct and socially and culturally dependent.

    Different groups adopt and use different boxes, and only a few - the "creative" ones - will construct, modify or change the box; this includes dipping into someone else's box when there is a perceived opportunity and advantage.

    Dishonest behaviour is observed in other primates, who will on occasion use "creative" behaviours to cheat other members of their group. It's an adaptive advantage and evolution made us that way. We humans have the added advantage of creating narratives to rationalize and explain our dishonesty.

     
     
     
    • Martin Thunman
    • Managing Partner, Zellmore

    Some of the most creative (and successful) people I've worked with in my companies have definitely been "trouble" and have been found taken short-cuts to success that have been very questionable from an ethical and moral standpoint. I'm not surprised of the article and would definitely agree with the thesis.

     
     
     
    • Anonymous

    My family are highly creative and, coincidentally, devoted to Dan Ariely. I am relieved to have his explanation for some of our more questionable behaviour. 'Borrowing' each others' stuff, taking blooms from public shrubs, recycling unwanted gifts, never paying a bill on time... I was worried we're breeding criminals but now I know it's related to being creative I feel so much better. It's just a real fine line.

     
     
     
    • MMR
    • Director

    I am creative and Intelligent (I suppose) and at the same time high on values, honest, ethical etc etc. I would say creative people, like ordinary people may or may not indulge in dishonesty, depending on their backgrounds, values and compelling situations, however there is a high probability for the dishonest creative person to get away smartly and low probability of getting caught

     
     
     
    • Peter Limpiyawon
    • Postgraduate Student, The Australian National University

    If I may make predictions based on this study and game theory, I'd hypothesise that

    (a) in an organisation where there are more than one creative employee with similar responsibilities or with auditing responsibilities, those creative people do NOT tend to cheat, as they fear their creative counterpart(s) may uncover the scheme and would not likely to cooperate.

    (b) in an organisation where there are NO other creative employees with similar responsibilities or with auditing responsibilities, those creative people do tend to cheat.

    So, the correlation between creativity and dishonest behaviour, I hypothesise, is conditioned by organisational structure and presence of creative people in similar or "checks and balances" departments.

    By the way, I don't know if there's any correlation between creativity and risk preferences. Are creative people more willing to accept greater risks? I am a "creative pessimist" who sees more dangers than solutions. Creative optimists, probably most evident in marketing units and organisations, I think, are not as risk averse as I am. Um, perhaps personality is worth a closer look in future studies.

     
     
     
    • David Physick
    • Consultant, Glowinkowski International

    One of the citations in the article is to Michael Kirton who has developed a highly reliable psychometric. Another instrument on the market is from Hogan, which considers the 'dark side' of personality. How often do we hear quotes about Machiavelli and his manipulative manners. I suspect there are psychiatric as opposed to psychological factors at play but our knowledge of the brain remains very nascent. Fascinating stuff and I believe entirely relevant to our current world.

     
     
     
    • Anonymous

    Creativity is based on the ability to observe and sense, especially in figuring out, isolating and differentiating context, such as-- an experiment or a real life situation.

     
     
     
    • Anonymous

    According to your findings:

    1. Companies like Google or IBM or any with great R+D needs must be full of cheaters?
    2. Artists and scientists are unethical by nature?
    3. Could be that companies that need innovators and very creative people, in order to retain them, make terrible decisions related with compensation, promotions and incentives in general?
    4. Could it be that those companies hire people highly motivated by extrinsic rewards and after that promote behaviors related with that kind of motivation?
    5. If "individuals who work in more creative positions are also more morally flexible", could it be possible that the problem is not the individual but the selection process and the incentives?
    6. Corruputs are almost always creative, so... you better don't hire creative people and then you won't have corruption in your company.
    7. Maybe politics are very creative and that's why they are unethical. If we elect people without creativity, politics will be much better and corruption will disappear.
     
     
     
    • Jane
    • Chief HR Business Partner, Multimedia Group Ltd.

    The values and beliefs an individual holds significantly influence behaviour. Also important is the degree of influence of relationships around - in an organisational setting - the effectiveness of supervision and continual dialogue and the sanctions and rewards in place; in a home/social setting the extent to which 'creatively dishonest' behaviour is rewarded and sanctioned. These can condition the correlation between creativity and dishonesty. The study would need to follow up on these to strengthen its arguments.

     
     
     
    • Michel Peruch
    • C.E.O., Rosemount Executive Management

    I liked the study because it correlates well both thinking and acting out-of-the box. I have appreciated many good comments too but I have a few points to add.

    1) Would another title as: 'Dishonest and cheating people tend to be more creative and original thinkers' being more suited? It would remove some controversy about establishing the link some people mentioned. It's clear that in HBS Clayton Christensen (Disruptive Innovation), Robert Kaplan (ABC costing and BSC), Michael Porter, John Kotter, and many others are creative thinkers and not cheating or being dishonest...!

    2) When we measure or observe an environment, we disturb it. Test are organized so that cheating is possible, there are financial incentives if people act in some ways, ... May be, with the same people, a test around ethics and moral values, where they were encouraged by earnings and through the testing scenarios would have also given a positive correlation. Stress was induced (by money but also limited time and challenging questions). Stress disturbs good and sound decision making as well.

    3) Without going deep into the details, all the panel was a Y-gen one. At that stage the ethical model is not yet fully developed because still influenced by the parent's culture and still defining their own (with different criterias). Moreover that generation displays different ethics than older generations. For example cheating at school or downloading thousands of songs and movies for free might be considered as 'opportunistic' while they tend to be more critical about a generation that had run dirty businesses polluting the environment, subcontracting work in low costs countries without respecting human rights or having Fair Traded intentions, kept minorities or even women outside of the important roles. Every culture has its own values.

    Finally a good study, I repeat, but one linking creativity to ethical behavior would complement it and would possibly allow to have a better understanding of the total picture.

     
     
     
    • Rudolf O. Rinze
    • Mngng Director, Combucasa-ORCA

    I agree with Mr. Stockton`s point about moral choice and self restraint as regulators of things from which we may or may not be able or willing to restrain. Also I do find affinity along the lines of Doctor Guillermina Hernandez: the relationship between creativity and dishonesty. May I say that to me both positions deserve due attention regarding suggestions for further studies. Perhaps the required sequel for Gino and Ariely present work, however its actual valuable contribution .

     
     
     
    • Illysa
    • Managing Principle, managingandleading.blogspot.com

    Something to think about as a parent of two very creative boys! I have to work harder to instill strong values while continuing to honor and encourage their divergent thinking.

     
     
     
    • Anonymous

    I agree with the article in the sense that if you don't have high moral and ethical standards, being creative means overstepping the ethical boundaries. I have experience in this area with my current superior, who is a Senior Vice President and always asks us to be creative...in other words to overstep boundaries and he justifies his actions in very "creative" ways which is demoralising to us as we know he's being unethical and trying to justify his actions by saying that he is creative and innovative. That doesn't mean all creative people are dishonest. I am creative but certainly not dishonest. I guess the deciding factor is strong moral and ethical principals. Without that yes being creative will definitely lead to dishonesty as you don't have any boundaries and anything is possible. Thanks for the article.

     
     
     
    • Dr S Santhanam
    • Consultant-Development Finance, Individual

    For a long time, as an Indian, I was feeling sad that we were not as creative and innovative as Americans are. Now, India (and a number of third world countries too) ranks high in the corruption index. Almost everyday, people hear of new scams in India (2G scam, Land scam, CWG scam, Satyam Computers and the list is endless). The PM and the ruling party are very much worried lot. I will forward the study results to them. They will be happy that they have encouraged people to be more creative through these scandals.

     
     
     
    • Anonymous

    The Dark Side of Creativity: Original Thinkers Can Be More Dishonest. I do not agree with this as a thumb rule. The following comments I studied from the above all, I agree with these comments. I am not accepting the As many of the men and women would be like me on the earth. :

    I am creative and Intelligent (I suppose) and at the same time high on values, honest, ethical etc etc. I would say creative people, like ordinary people may or may not indulge in dishonesty, depending on their backgrounds, values and compelling situations; however there is a high probability for the dishonest creative person to get away smartly and low probability of getting caught

    I am both creative and intelligent and consider myself very honest. I went through schools, college, and graduate college and never cheated. I researched and wrote all my own papers and did very well on tests by studying. My creativity helped me to do well without considering dishonest behavior, so I do not agree with this study. I am truthful and honest in my relationships, yet also enjoy fantasy and have a sense of wonder and create works of art. The artists I know also have integrity, so I would like to know who was studied. Corrupts are almost always creative, so... you better don't hire creative people and then you won't have corruption in your company.

    May be politics are very creative and that's why they are unethical. If we elect people without creativity, politics will be much better and corruption will disappear. I am creative but certainly not dishonest. I guess the deciding factor is strong moral and ethical principles. Without that yes being creative will definitely lead to dishonesty as you don't have any boundaries and anything is possible.

    Thanks for the article.

     
     
     
    • vera
    • sdf

    May I say that to me both positions deserve due attention regarding suggestions for further studies.

     
     
     
    • Fabien Benetou
    • Founder, Innovativ.IT

    Ironically enough, there is an entire book on that topic entitled... The Dark Side of Creativity http://www.cambridge.org/gb/knowledge/isbn/item2705195/?sitelocale=enGB Cambridge University Press September 2010 not mentioned in the reference nor in the discussion. People interested in this topic or wanted to consider less idealistically the field of creativity might want to explore this after reading this paper. The paper itself is very interesting and the reactions here are also interesting since, as expected, most people describe themselves or their valued peers as only having the positive aspect (creativity) without the negative one (dishonesty), precisely what the study suggests. Also it is important to keep in mind that moral and ethics might be considered relative to a culture or evolving rather than fixed, so being judged as immoral or unethical by others might not be sufficient to be "objectively bad".

     
     
     
    • Urquhart
    • Wood, Strategyn Consulting

    This isn't a surprising result to me. Just look at professional artists. Aren't many of them pushing the envelop with their lifestyles as well as their art? (I've had an artist friend of mine say "I don't want to be shackled by what others think is right or wrong. That's their dead thinking." We know that creativity is compromised when people feel constrained by the opinion (judgments) of others. And moral behavior is constrained by "what others would think," too. So the fact that there is a correlation makes sense. As another reader pointed out, however, there is no causal relationship. There is much more going on inside of us that will need to be understood to explain causation. We all know that there are many creative people who are also ethical.

     
     
     
    • Eric O. Esievo
    • CEO, FOURTHMAN Global Consulting Ltd.

    Creativity and dishonesty, to my mind are like a screwdriver in the hands of an engineer or a thief. With it one can repair, or burgle.

    That those endowed with creativity tend to cheat is relative. This depends on the 'character' of the individual amongst other social and psychological factors.

    I am creative and my problem overtime has been selling out my ideas. From experience I learent that before anybody may buy into my idea, they first of all buy into me. How do I therefore endear myself to them; this also demands creativity.

    I cannot however conclude on this, the situation in which one appears dishonest could be such that, when the creative individual becomes over-protective or cladestine he/she tends to scheme to see his/her creative ideas sail through to find fulfilment.

    My question therefore in this line of thinking is, in what situation does the creative person is adjudged dishonest, and by who, for with what intent?

    Thank you!

    Eric O. Esievo FOURTHMAN Global Consulting Ltd.

     
     
     
    • Anonymous

    I have in my background many years of professional concertizing as a classical pianist. I consider myself gifted, creative, and imaginative. I've long recognized my own deep ominous dark side within, counterbalanced by a lofty spiritual side that reaches upward toward the divine. These co-existing sparring sides found expression at the piano. My upbringing though turbulent was framed by high integrity of both parents in matters of money, debt, and upstanding citizenry. In such matters, I have followed suit. In other things, rights and wrongs learned from parents has effectively checked the greater part of what might have turned out to be dark side winnings... with some notable exceptions, particularly in relationships, where my behavior has sometimes correlated with the findings of Study 5: moral flexibility; this I've been able to justify, perhaps "ingeniously". In short, I partially recognize myself in Ms. Gino's writin gs.

     
     
     
    • Anonymous

    I disagree with this statement because all people are creative in one way or another, whether it be with food, crafts, tinkering, creating websites, creating documents, writing, painting, playing music, whatever. So what you are saying is that almost everyone is dishonest. Lame.

     
     
     
    • Mark Davis

    This study represents one of the more creative concepts I have seen in weeks. After scanning the working paper I was amazed at the level of creative manipulation. Is this a joke? As humans, our prejudices greatly influence our beliefs and we tend to find 'proof' where ever we look.

     
     
     
    • Anonymous

    I'm curious as to how this study defined and differentiated between creativity and intelligence. Intelligence, by my definition, requires the ability to have original thought. Original thought is by definition creative. Therefore, intelligent people are creative.

    Based on this logic, if I am to believe the theories posited in the above study, intelligent people are more likely to be dishonest than their unintelligent counterparts.

    What does this say about Harvard?

     
     
     
    • Anonymous

    Two thoughts : 1: The title suggest: Original thinkers CAN be more dishonest, it leave a equal probability of original thinkers CAN be MORE honest? Sometimes original thinkers can analyze an issue more deeply than a common man and hence there is a higher possibility that they would see implications of making a decision better and more honestly compared to others who would think comparitively more superficially and end up making decisions which seem to be honest to him/her but in reality is not the best honest decision.
    Normally media publicizes the creative dishonest incidents/decisions more loudly compared to creative honest decisions (enron, etc..). This can be a stage for creation of a bias in our minds which would strongly want us to believe in this author's paper. Reality cannot be seen clearly when glanced through biased eyes. Could this also lead to a possibility that creatively honest people's act unless revealed loudly would go unnoticed, uncredited for? 2: Instead of saying 'Original thinkers', I think it would be more appropriate to say 'creative thinkers' that can be dishonest due to the reasons stated in paper which point out to creative thinkers as opposed to original thinkers. Not all creative thinkers are original thinkers, although the other way around is true.

     
     
     
    • J Lyles

    Stop it. I can't accept this thesis nor any others before it. The face of it is hardly logical--not for a scientist--not for a layman. I have a lot of respect for Harvard, my professors there were the highest caliber. This makes it doubly hard to understand how any Harvard faculty could produce a study citing "Lex Luthor" as grounds for investigation.

    One of the first lessons in computer science is garbage in, garbage out. Anyone here can produce a study demonstrating that sleep does the same thing! How about taking vitamins? Or showering? American society has dispensed with critical thinking altogether, if this idea passes as credible science.

     
     
     
    • Anonymous

    Perhaps this study was motivated by the recent hoopla over the movie "Social Network". A co-creator of Facebook was portrayed as both genius and immoral - and both lead to his business success. But "one bad apple don't spoil the whole bunch". Perhaps we simply expect our more creative and sensitive individuals to also be more honest than the average person.

     
     
     
    • Bob Kolodinsky
    • Professor, James Madison University

    Interesting. Perhaps the following study might appeal more to some of the skeptics? Paul E. Bierly, Robert W. Kolodinsky & Brian J. Charette (2009). Understanding the Complex Relationship Between Creativity and Ethical Ideologies. Journal of Business Ethics 86 (1). ABSTRACT: The relationship between individuals' creativity and their ethical ideologies appears to be complex. Applying Forsyth's (1980, 1992) personal moral philosophy model which consists of two independent ethical ideology dimensions, idealism and relativism, we hypothesized and found support for a positive relationship between creativity and relativism. It appears that creative people are less likely than non-creative people to follow universal rules in their moral decision making. However, contrary to our hypothesis and the general stereotype that creative people are less caring about others, we found a positive relationship between creativity and idealism. These findings indicate that highly creative people are likely to be what Forsyth called "situationists," individuals with both an ethic of caring and a pragmatic moral decision-making style. The finding that creative individuals tend to be situationists, and particularly that they tend to be high in idealis m, appears to refute the line of reasoning that argues for a "creative personality" characterized in part by social insensitivity. Understanding the relationship between creativity and ethical ideologies has important implications for researchers, managers and teachers.

     
     
     
    • shadreck saili
    • UCT

    This article is really creative. The reasoning is fine though at the point of promoting creativity is persons. The emphasis is on positive aspects. No doubt, to any object , intention or focus there is a negative aspect. But that is not the interest at the time. The practice is to take note of the negative and fight to reduce their impact. Other wise this is a worth while dimension to creativity to creatively be weary off.

     
     
     
    • Paulo Wilson Rodrigues
    • Executive, I dont have one yet

    Creativity & dishonesty:

     Creativity is a flexible way of seeing old things. Since it is flex it should be necessarily different, in other words its a different and advantageously way of doing the same old thing.
      On the other hand dishonesty is a wise man which takes advantages from anybody in the neibourhood no matter if it is legal or not.
      Thats the similarity betwen creativity and dishonesty:
      both are looking for taking advantages.
    
      Paulo Wilson Rodrigues
                Owner
    
     
     
     
    • JD Eveland
    • Professor, Trident University

    I haven't seen yet in the comments any analysis that highlights for me the major issue -- that being that "honesty" isn't a yes/no dichotomy, but rather itself a kind of continuous variable. It's not hard to pin down the end points of an "honesty scale" -- or at least a "perceived honesty scale" -- I've known many people who firmly believed many propositions that were absolute nonsense, and if you were to test them, they would score top marks for honesty by affirming this nonsense. But even assuming that we'll go with "perceived honesty" -- there's still a considerable range of variation between, say embezzling $100 billion from your investors and inadvertently taking home a company-owned pen that you forgot you'd put in your pocket. Make those the endpoints on your honesty scale, pick some anchor points in between, and you might have something worth working with.

    I am creative and intelligent, and yes, I have done things like subverting and going around company policies on occasion when I believed that the policies were ill-advised and everyone would be better off if I did -- and almost uniformly been proved right. There is a fundamental proposition of organizational life that goes, "It's easier to get forgiveness than permission." I suspect that a lot of the "dishonest" organizational behavior surfaced in this study falls in that debatable area.

     
     
     
    • Anonymous

    My understanding of this study is that it supports the concept of cognitive dissonance and the motivational drive to eliminate dissonance by modifying one's beliefs or actions (in this case, explaining away dishonest behavior through rationalization).

    It is the proposed causal relationship I take issue with. If creativity triggers dishonesty, why not propose that being dishonest (an 'evil genius') triggers creativity?

    Also, the suggestion in the Executive Summary that artists tend to be unethical is contemptuous and what one would expect from Harvard. Shame!

     
     
     
    • Natarajan
    • Prof, SRM University

    The study seems interesting. However, I do not belive that creative personality means dishonesty. It may be that it is easier for them to be dishonest, as they invent their own ways of justification for moral and ethical needs. As long as their creativity is productive we should not bother. Rather such creative individual should be trained properly when they are young so that they channalise their capabilities in productive good ways.