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Original thinkers are more likely to be dishonest

Creativity linked to unethical behaviour, study finds

21 March 2012

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By Manju Manglani, Editor (@ManjuManglani)

Creative people are more likely to cheat and demonstrate unethical behaviour, an academic study has found.

It found that while greater creativity helps individuals to solve difficult tasks, it can also lead them to take unethical routes when searching for solutions to problems while thinking ‘outside the box’.

Individuals who work in more creative positions are more morally flexible, so greater creativity can lead to greater dishonesty by increasing individuals’ abilities to justify potentially unethical actions, according to the research by Francesca Gino of Harvard Business School and Dan Ariely of Fuqua School of Business.

Creative people are able to perceive and describe what remains hidden from the views of others, to develop original ideas and envision multiple solutions to a given problem, the authors said. However, this approach can also create the temptation to behave unethically.

“Lawyers who are creative or who are paid to think creatively often end up exploiting the loopholes and ambiguities of the law on behalf of clients, and their ‘creative compliance’ with regulatory requirements undermines the purpose and effectiveness of existing regulations,” the authors noted in their March 2012 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology paper ‘The dark side of creativity: original thinkers can be more dishonest’.

When faced with a tension between the desire to maximise self-interest and the desire to maintain a positive view of themselves, individuals tend to behave dishonestly enough to profit from their unethical behaviour but honestly enough to maintain a positive self-concept as honest human beings, recent research has suggested.

The study by Gino and Ariely found that ‘moral flexibility’ explains the relationship between a creative mindset and increased dishonesty. “Any situation in which there is room to justify potential dishonesty or self-interested behaviour is more likely to promote dishonesty,” they said.

Creativity increases moral flexibility, or individuals’ ability to justify their immoral actions by generating multiple and diverse reasons that their actions can be judged as ethically appropriate, they found.

“When people are motivated to behave dishonestly so as to benefit financially in a given situation (or to advance their self-interest in other forms), divergent thinking is likely to help them develop original ways to bypass moral rules,” the authors said.

“Similarly, cognitive flexibility is likely to help them reinterpret available information regarding their own behaviour in a self-serving way.”

However, they found no evidence of links between creativity and intelligence or between intelligence and dishonesty.

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