Liars and cheats may be more creative than honest people, a new study suggests. Lying about performance on one task may increase creativity on a subsequent task by making people feel less bound by conventional rules, researchers have found.
“The common saying that ‘rules are meant to be broken’ is at the root of both creative performance and dishonest behaviour,” said lead researcher Francesca Gino of Harvard Business School. “Both creativity and dishonesty, in fact, involve rule breaking,” Gino said.
To examine the link between dishonesty and creativity, Gino and colleague Scott Wiltermuth of the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California designed a series of experiments that allowed, and even sometimes encouraged, people to cheat. In the first experiment, for example, participants were presented with a series of number matrices and were tasked with finding two numbers that added up to 10 in each matrix.
They were told they would be compensated based on the number of matrices they had been able to solve and were asked to self-report the number they got correct. This setup allowed participants to inflate their own performance – what they didn’t know was that the researchers were able to track their actual performance.
In a subsequent and supposedly unrelated task, the participants were presented with sets of three words (eg, sore, shoulder, sweat) and were asked to come up with a fourth word (eg, cold) that was related to each word in the set. The task, which taps a person’s ability to identify words that are so-called “remote associates”, is commonly used to measure creative thinking.
Gino and Wiltermuth found that almost 59 per cent of the participants cheated by inflating their performance on the matrices in the experiment. And cheating on the matrices seemed to be associated with a boost to creative thinking – cheaters figured out more of the remote associates than those who didn’t cheat.
Subsequent experiments provided further evidence for a link between dishonesty and creativity, revealing that participants showed higher levels of creative thinking according to various measures after they had been induced to cheat on an earlier task. Additional data suggest that cheating may encourage subsequent creativity by priming participants to be less constrained by rules.
“Our research raises the possibility that one of the reasons why dishonesty seems so widespread in today’s society is that by acting dishonestly we become more creative and this creativity may allow us to come up with original justifications for our immoral behaviour and make us likely to keep crossing ethical boundaries,” Gino said. The findings are published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.