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The link between creativity and dishonesty

Laura Mann

Laura Mann

You are remembered for the rules you break.
—Douglas MacArthur

Thinking outside the box is a timeworn euphemism that is still used, ad nauseam, when describing creativity. But what about when the “box” in question is a set of rules, or even laws, put in place for good reason?
Harvard researcher Francesca Gino set out to examine the ties between creativity and ethics (or the lack thereof). In 2011, Gino published a paper titled “The Dark Side of Creativity: Original Thinkers Can Be More Dishonest,” in which Gino and fellow researcher Dan Ariely of Duke University found that highly creative people are more likely to engage in unethical activities.
Research studies conducted at California State University backed up Gino and Ariely’s findings: Participants were tested using the Remote Associations Test (RAT), and were then given the opportunity to cheat on a subsequent section of the test. Subjects who scored higher on the RAT usually opted to cheat on the second part.
Gino’s latest paper, titled “Evil Genius? How Dishonesty Can Lead to Greater Creativity,” puts the creativity-dishonesty theory to the test, but in reverse. The previous paper showed that creativity may lead to dishonesty; in the new study, the participants “had the opportunity to behave dishonestly by overreporting their performance on various tasks.” Afterward, they were tested on remote associations. The subjects were asked to take a test, then report on their own scores, with the stipulation that they would be paid for every correct answer. Those who reported more correct answers than they actually got, scored higher on the subsequent creativity tests.
The thin line between creativity and dishonesty
Creativity is generally seen as a positive trait. What are the implications of creativity being tied to dishonesty and cheating? Should we see cheaters and liars as more creative? Or are cheaters and liars simply using their creativity in a dishonest way?
The similarities between dishonesty and creativity lie at their root. The basis of both (the ability to see outside “the box” provided by rules, and the willingness to bend/break such rules) differs from the end result (to cheat or not to cheat), which relies more on individual ethics, morality, and motivation, than the ability to see new and novel solutions.

Should we see cheaters and liars as more creative?

Getting around the dubious moral and ethical standings of cheating and dishonesty involves catching yourself when you feel the need to cheat. If you see an opportunity to cheat and get ahead, recognize that this is your creative, outside-the-box mind at work: you are seeing beyond the rules and predetermined structure of the task at hand.
The gears of your imagination are beginning to grind. You can take advantage of this by refocusing your efforts and going over the within-the-box solutions that you have already come up with, to see if there are ways these solutions can be improved without being dishonest.
Entertaining the idea of cheating, and actually cheating, are two very different things. The difference lies in personal values and morality. Although the highly creative subjects in Gino’s study were more likely to cheat as an end result, they wouldn’t even entertain the idea if they hadn’t been able to think outside the box in the first place.
Creativity may have the same roots as dishonesty, but the similarities they share — being able to see the proverbial box itself, and being able to think outside the rules — are separate from the end result. So the next time you feel tempted to cheat, know that your creative mind is at work, and you can take advantage of this in more positive, honest ways. Imagine that!

Laura Mann graduated in Emerging Media and Communications from the University of Texas, and writes for The Dallas Observer. She also provides media assistance to the MediaWise Movement.

© Michael Mann, 2013, all rights retained. Printed by permission of the author.

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