The Dark Side of Creativity: Original Thinkers Can Be More Dishonest is the title of a provocative paper published precisely one year ago. Francesca Gino of Harvard Business School and Dan Ariely of Duke University presented evidence that highly creative people are more likely to engage in unethical activities, apparently because they are better at finding ways to justify such behavior.
While those who value creativity conceded the logic of that equation, many were reluctant to embrace that uncomfortable conclusion. But newly published research confirms those results, and adds a twist.
In a study conducted by a research team led by psychologist Melanie Beaussart of California State University, San Bernardino, people who behaved ethically also scored lower in creativity. What’s more, creativity scores were also poor among participants who considered themselves ethical—whether or not that perception fit with their actual behavior.
“The implications of these and other related findings challenge the prevailing idea of creativity as a benevolent construct,” Beaussart and her colleagues write in the journal Thinking Skills and Creativity.
Their study featured 566 people, all college students who participated for extra credit. They first performed an abbreviated version of the Remote Associates Test, in which they were given three words (such as “falling,” “actor” and “dust”) and asked to come up with one word that tied them all together (in this case, “star”).
Participants were given 15 minutes to solve 15 such items, all of which required creative thinking. They then filled out a survey assessing their integrity, rating the likelihood they would, among other things, be “trusted to keep secrets,” or “lie to get myself out of trouble.”
Afterwards, they received a “thank you for participating” message, which was quickly supplanted by a fake “error” message that told them the study was not quite over. At that point, they could either continue to answer questions or, due to the “computer glitch,” declare they were finished and receive the extra credit without having actually completed the test.
“We found that people who passed the behavioral test of integrity were no different than those who failed the test when it came to their score on the self-described measure of integrity,” the researchers write. “Self-perceptions of morality were not related to actual honest behavior.”
However, self-perceptions of morality were related to creativity scores. While creativity was significantly higher in the group that cheated (confirming those previous results), it was significantly lower among people who rated themselves as high in integrity, whether or not they actually cheated.
This is, of course, one small study in a still-emerging field. But it suggests that creativity is dampened if you’re an actual honest person, or if you falsely perceive yourself as an honest person.
It all brings to mind Oscar Wilde’s assertion that, for someone whose driving force is aesthetics, ethics become less important. Perhaps creativity is boosted when you give yourself license to explore all your options—whether or not they follow traditional moral rules.