The Evil Genius is a familiar trope. It’s everywhere from Mephistopheles in Goethe’s Faust to Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the James Bond villain known as “Number 1.” Recent research indicates that a psychological truth may underlie the stereotype. Studies conducted by Francesca Gino of Harvard Business School and Dan Ariely of Duke University suggest that creativity fuels dishonesty and that dishonest behavior triggers creativity. “It may be a cycle that reinforces itself,” says Gino. “You could have a situation in which creativity initially pushes you across the line and then dishonesty heightens creativity, which might make it easier to cheat again. It’s a downward spiral.”
Gino and Ariely’s paper, “The Dark Side of Creativity: Original Thinkers Can Be More Dishonest,” published this month in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, focuses on the first part of the equation: how creativity affects dishonesty.
The first study featured in the paper uses survey data compiled from 99 employees across 17 departments at an unnamed U.S. advertising agency in the South. The employees were asked to indicate how likely they’d be to engage in various ethically questionable behaviors—everything from stealing office supplies to inflating business expense reports. They also rated the level of creativity required for their specific jobs. (Their answers were cross-checked by evaluations from three top managers, who also rated the creativity of each department.) “We found a positive correlation,” says Gino. “The more creativity required on the job, the more unethical behavior was self-reported.” Note: Subsequent studies seem to indicate that these findings weren’t simply a result of more honest reporting on the part of creative employees.
This isn’t to say that graphic designers are necessarily more dishonest than, say, accountants. Creative types are simply “at a higher risk for behaving unethically because they can more easily find reasons why their behavior is not problematic,” says Gino. In other words, original thinkers aren’t more ethically depraved than the rest of us; they’re just better equipped to find ways of being dishonest without compromising their own self-regard.
Other studies featured in Gino and Ariely’s paper compared cheating in people who’d been primed for innovative thinking vs. those who hadn’t. Half the test subjects were asked to unscramble sentences that specifically addressed creativity—a technique proven to trigger original thinking. The other half unscrambled neutral sentences with no mention of creativity. Next, the test subjects were placed in various situations in which cheating was given an incentive in the prospect of earning small amounts of money. The result? Subjects encouraged to think creatively were consistently more likely to cheat.
The link between creativity and dishonesty may even extend to situations in which the distinction between right and wrong is quite clear, making creative justification more difficult. To test this, Gino and Ariely asked 159 primed and non-primed subjects to roll dice once and then self-report their results, from one to six. They were given monetary rewards for each roll proportional to the number displayed by their dice: $1 for a one, $2 for a two, $3 for a three, and so forth. Those primed for creativity reported an average roll score of five, compared with an average roll score of 3 1/2 reported by neutral subjects. Gino and Ariely can’t know for sure whether lying came into play, but the results are certainly suspicious.
In recent months, Gino has begun looking at the other side of the equation: how dishonest behavior influences creativity. Her preliminary findings from a study in December indicate that cheating itself may inspire and enable creative thinking. She plans to run subsequent studies to better understand the phenomenon. “We think what’s happening is that after you’ve cheated, you’re trying to justify cheating and if you’re asked to perform a task, you’ll probably going to be more creative,” she says.
So, what does all this say about MBA students, who in previous studies have been shown to cheat more than graduate students from other disciplines? Are they more creative? Not necessarily. Dishonest behavior is, after all, also influenced by environment. “Research shows that when you teach people to do cost-benefit analysis … they’ll give more weight to their own self-interest,” says Gino. “Often [business students] apply that framework to contexts where maybe they shouldn’t.”