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Dishonesty Can Foster Creativity

New research finds people who cheat subsequently perform better on tests measuring creative thinking.
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(Photo: Antony McAulay/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Antony McAulay/Shutterstock)

Want to be more creative? As we have noted, there are many ways to achieve that laudable goal, ranging from dimming the lights to sitting at a disorderly desk.

Or you could just lie and cheat.

After Harvard Business School researcher Francesa Gino reported in 2011 that that highly creative people are more likely to engage in unethical activities, she began to wonder whether dishonesty could actually enhance creativity. Her latest paper suggests the answer is yes.

“This research shows that the sentiment expressed in the common saying ‘rules are meant to be broken’ is at the root of both creative performance and dishonest behavior,” Gino and co-author Scott Wiltermuth write in the journal Psychological Science. “It also provides new evidence that dishonesty may therefore lead people to become more creative in their subsequent behaviors.”

"By acting dishonestly, people become more creative, which allows them to come up with more creative justifications for their immoral behavior, and therefore more likely to behave dishonestly."

Gino and Wiltermuth provide evidence for this thesis in the form of five experiments. In one, 153 people recruited online were instructed to quickly scan a series of numbers to find combinations that added up to 10. Afterwards, they reported how well they did, aware that if they were randomly selected to receive a bonus, they would earn $1 for each correct solution.

They then completed the Remote Association Task, a well-known test of creative thinking in which participants are presented with three words and instructed to find a fourth that logically links to all three. (One example: The words are sore, shoulder, and sweat, and the fourth word is cold.)

Nearly 59 percent of participants overstated the number of problems they had solved on the numbers test. These cheaters performed better than their honest counterparts on the subsequent creativity task. What’s more, their advantage remained even after researchers took into account their performance on an earlier, different test of creative thinking.

A second experiment featured 101 university students. They, too, displayed their creative-thinking skills in the Remote Association Task. But they began by answering 20 multiple-choice problems, presented one by one on a computer screen.

Half were told that, due to a computer glitch, the correct answer would appear on the screen unless they stopped it by pressing the space bar as soon as the problem appeared. They were urged to do so in the name of honesty. Researchers used the number of times they did not as a measure of cheating.

Fifty-one of the 53 participants who had an opportunity to cheat did so. Those dishonest people did better on the creative-thinking test than their counterparts who had no opportunity to cheat.

“These results indicate that cheating increased creativity on a subsequent task,” the researchers write. A subsequent experiment provided evidence that acting dishonestly left participants to “feel unconstrained by rules,” which helped them think more creatively.

At least theoretically, this dynamic could continue indefinitely in a circular fashion, Gino and Wiltermuth conclude. “By acting dishonestly,” they write, “people become more creative, which allows them to come up with more creative justifications for their immoral behavior, and therefore more likely to behave dishonestly.”

So the next time you get caught lying or cheating, try this novel defense: “I was just priming my creativity.” Chances are it won’t get  you off the hook, but you will get points for being, well, creative.