Why Creative People Go Bad

The perception that one possesses the rare gift of creativity can lead to feelings of entitlement and, ultimately, unethical behavior.
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The perception that one possesses the rare gift of creativity can lead to feelings of entitlement and, ultimately, unethical behavior.
(Photo: everything possible/Shutterstock)

(Photo: everything possible/Shutterstock)

There is growing evidence that creative people are more likely than their non-creative counterparts to engage in unethical behavior. While innovative individuals can come up with ingenious ways to break the rules—and invent clever justifications for doing so—it isn't clear why so many choose to cheat.

In a newly published study, Lynne Vincent of Syracuse University and Maryam Kouchaki of Northwestern University present a plausible answer. They argue that creativity breeds dishonesty when it is seen as something unusual and valuable.

"We suggest that creative identity derives its value, specifically, from a sense of rarity, specialness, and uniqueness, which causes a sense of entitlement (among creative people)," they write in the Academy of Management Journal. "This sense of entitlement, in turn, can cause individuals to engage in dishonest behaviors."

The ability to think outside the box doesn't entitle you to steal the box.

Basically, they're confirming what every Hollywood reporter knows: The notion that they possess a rare gift inflates the egos of certain creative people, leading to a mindset that they don't have to obey the same rules as the dim, dull masses.

Vincent and Kouchaki describe a series of experiments that provide evidence of this dynamic. In one of them, 158 MBA students began by completing seven problems from the Remote Associates Test, a common measure of creativity. Each then received one of three messages.

One-third of participants were told "You performed very well on this activity, which many people do not. Creativity is rare." Another third were also informed they did very well, but they were told that "many people do" and "creativity is common." The final third received no message.

Participants then played a game in which, by lying to their partner (who was anonymous), they could potentially earn $5 rather than $2.

Those told their creativity was rare were twice as likely to lie than those who were informed that their creativity, while high, was not unusual. They also scored significantly higher on a psychological entitlement scale.

There was not a significant difference in the rate of lying, or the sense of entitlement, between those who received the creativity-is-common message and no message at all.

These results were confirmed in a real-world setting. Another experiment featured 100 employees in various fields. They were surveyed about their creativity, as well as the "perceived prevalence of creativity" in their work group. Their immediate supervisors evaluated their ethical behavior, noting whether they engaged in such actions as falsifying reports or using company resources for personal projects.

"Individuals who reported a higher level of creative identity were reported by their supervisors to have engaged in more unethical behaviors," the researchers write. However, "this relationship is much weaker and nonsignificant than those who perceive creativity to be common in their work group."

That latter finding suggests a possible solution to this problem.

"We propose that managers who are interested in supporting employees' creative identities should create conditions that support creative behaviors, but also stress that creativity is ... an ability that everyone has that can be cultivated," Vincent and Kouchaki write."Managers can value creativity at the group level and focus on (the notion that) everyone can be creative."

Beyond that, perhaps we need a new axiom: The ability to think outside the box doesn't entitle you to steal the box.

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Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.

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