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December 8, 2021

Guest Column: Study finds that creative people cheat more often

By SAMHITA ILANGO | November 20, 2014

Flashing back to the third grade, you’re surrounded by the bright vibrancy that encompassed the welcoming elementary school walls. It’s Tuesday, and the weekly spelling quiz is about to begin. You studied, but not enough; your mother got you a new paint set, and you spent the majority of last evening mixing colors and painting. Your palms are clammy and then quickly escalate to moist as your teacher instructs the class to spell the first word. The unthinkable has happened, and you are faced with the impending doom that tricky inflected endings bring. Your neighbor, with a champion smile on her face, frantically spells the word. You hear an eraser being rubbed against paper to your left, and swift as a feather, your neighbor’s answer sheet has been flown to the ground. Do you dart your eyes and look to your left? Or do you hold up to your honest upbringing and ignore the paper on the floor, even if it could save your test? Would you really resort to cheating? Being exposed to situations like this in life is inevitable, but do we act? Being the creative individual you are, the answer is yes.

A study by Francesca Gino of Harvard University and Dan Ariely from Duke University asks if creativity is always beneficial. They discuss the bad side of creativity, where they propose that creative individuals can be more dishonest. To test this idea, they administered five experiments that measured whether cheating occurred more frequently by individuals who were creative. They also measured if dispositional creativity is a better predictor of unethical behavior than intelligence. In these experiments, participants had the opportunity to behave dishonestly by overstating their performance and, therefore, earn more money.

After analyzing all five experiments, there was surprisingly conclusive data that showed creativity being positively associated with dishonesty. Even more, creativity promotes dishonesty by increasing individuals’ ability to generate reasons to justify their unethical behavior. To answer the main question Gino and Ariely proposed, it is possible that creative thinking has a hidden cost in the form of increased dishonesty when used to resolve ethical dilemmas.

The paper defines the creative process as having two main components, the first as divergent thinking and the second as cognitive flexibility. Divergent thinkers are classified as individuals who develop original ideas, and cognitive flexibility is the ability to restructure knowledge in different ways depending on the situation. The study ultimately concludes that if one possesses these two traits, then dishonest behavior is promoted in any situation where there is room to justify potential self-interested behavior.

I find these conclusions to be especially fascinating because of the positive light Americans shed on creativity. Our society encourages creativity. We foster creative ideals from a young age, making young kindergartners finger paint and exposing children to music. The creative individuals in our society are our innovators. They produce Apple products and technology. Even Albert Einstein, commonly considered a genius, said, “Imagination is more important that knowledge.” But if we hold the arts and creativity to such high standards in our society, how is it that the correlation to dishonesty is so unapparent? The art-loving third-grader presented with the chance to cheat on his spelling quiz would be more than likely do so. According to Ariely’s and Gino’s study, the student, because of his creative nature, would cheat and also be able to justify his bad deed to himself.

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