Dec. 7, 2011 at 4:57 PM ET
Creativity may have a dark side.
The very same people who have the intellectual spark to think outside the box when solving complicated problems may also be the ones who can more easily indulge in cheating and general dishonesty, a new study suggests.
“Creative people are more able to come up with reasons to justify unethical behavior — they are more morally flexible,” said the study’s lead author Francesca Gino, an associate professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School. “Concluding that the rule does not make sense could be one of the potential justifications.”
To test the theory that people who score well in creativity may be more likely to cheat, Gino rounded up several groups of college students.
She and her co-author, Dan Ariely of Duke University -- who published their findings in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology -- started out by testing study volunteers’ intelligence and creativity. Then the researchers ran a series of experiments that used money to tempt people into dishonesty.
In one experiment, the researchers gave volunteers a multiple-choice quiz that tested general knowledge. For every correct answer, the volunteers would make money.
The volunteers were later asked to copy their answers onto a special form. One of the researchers told them that the correct answers had been lightly marked on these new forms -- by mistake -- and that they should ignore the marks, be honest, and fill out the forms as they had on their original quizzes. The volunteers were then told to discard their original quizzes, which didn’t have their names on them, in a special container.
In reality, the researchers had put special, identifying marks on the original quizzes. So they were able to compare the two versions to see if there had been any cheating. Sure enough, the researchers found that the most creative students were also the most dishonest. And that pattern held up in each of four other experiments.
While the study probably isn’t the last word on the subject, it may be a “cautionary tale,” said Art Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania and an msnbc.com contributor. “You’ve got to be careful in encouraging creativity since it probably comes with a potential for self-rationalization. Creative people will think of new ways to bend the rules to do what they want to do.”
Still, Caplan said, the researchers did load the dice in favor of their theory by choosing students for study volunteers.
“If I were trying to hunt up someone who is ethically the most willing to be pushing the limits, it would be college students,” Caplan explained. “They’re still exploring or testing ethics and morality."