Are "Creative" Thinkers More Unethical?

Last Updated Jan 26, 2011 3:58 PM EST


You might not want the finance staff to head back to work immediately after that big brainstorming session. And come to think of it, you may want to discourage the brainstorming altogether.

That's because a working paper by Francesca Gino of Harvard Business School and Dan Ariely of Duke University's Fuqua School of Business, titled, "The Dark Side of Creativity: Original Thinkers Can Be More Dishonest," shows that after being primed to think creatively, people are more likely to act unethically.

Equally as disheartening is the finding that people who are already more creative than others are more likely to act dishonestly. The authors of the study say creativity helps people find new and interesting ways to break rules, and to come up with unique ways to justify their unethical actions after the fact.

To be sure, creativity has many well-documented benefits for businesses. Other studies have shown that investments in creativity and innovation positively impact organizational performance, and that 'creative' products generate a higher return than products that are considered common.

The authors say theirs is the first study to show an empirical relationship between creativity and dishonesty.

Dishonesty in the Research Lab
The researchers conducted four different experiments, each using between 71 and 111 students as subjects. The researchers relied upon commonly-used tests of creativity, such as questionnaires asking the students how well different adjectives described them (insightful, resourceful, unconventional) and asking them to solve hypothetical problems designed to produce a creative frame of mind. (In one example, students were presented with a picture of a candle, matches, and a box of tacks sitting on a table next to a cardboard wall. They were then asked to figure out, using only these objects, how to attach the candle to the wall in such a way that the candle burns properly and does not drop wax on the table or the floor.)

Next, subjects were asked to look a series of squares, each divided diagonally into triangles. The researchers then flashed a bunch of dots onto each square, and asked students to tell them if more dots were in the left-hand triangle or the right. For every time a student answered "left" they got half a cent, and for every time they answered "right" they got five cents. In half the trials it was obvious which side had more dots, and in half it was ambiguous. The students who had highly creative personalities cheated significantly more than students with less creative personalities; so did the students who had been 'primed' to think creatively.

Creatives Make Ethical Short Cuts

While this situation may seem overly hypothetical, the researchers followed it up by asking 99 people who worked at an ad agency how much creativity was required for their job. They then asked how likely they'd be to do things such as taking home office supplies, inflating their expense report, or telling their boss they'd make progress on an assignment when in reality no progress had been made. Employees who needed to be more creative in their jobs, and in departments where more creativity was required, were significantly more likely to behave dishonestly.

As for the dripping-candle problem? One solution is to empty the box of tacks and tack it to the wall, then place the candle on top of it. Some 47% of students who had been primed to think creatively figured this out, compared to 27% who had not been primed.

Do you find that the "creatives" in your office have morals that are more, shall we say, flexible?
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    Kimberly Weisul is the co-founder of One Thing New, the free email newsletter for smart, busy women. She was previously Senior Editor at BusinessWeek, responsible for all coverage of entrepreneurship and for launching BusinessWeek SmallBiz, a bimonthly magazine. She is also a freelance writer, editor and editorial consultant.

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