Why Creative Types May Be More Likely to Cheat

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Creative people think “outside the box,” a gift of psychological flexibility that, it turns out, may also apply to their ethics, according to the latest research from the American Psychological Association. Creative types, in other words, may be more likely to cheat.

The same enterprising mind that allows creative people to consider new possibilities, generate original ideas, and resolve conflicts innovatively may be what also helps them justify their own dishonest behavior, said the authors of the new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

“Ethical dilemmas often require people to weigh two opposing forces: the desire to maximize self-interest and the desire to maintain a positive view of oneself,” wrote business professors Francesca Gino, at Harvard, and Dan Ariely, at Duke University. “Recent research has suggested that individuals tend to resolve this tension through self-serving rationalizations: They behave dishonestly enough to profit from their unethical behavior but honestly enough to maintain a positive self-concept as honest human beings.”

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In such cases, creative people may prove to be especially limber mental gymnasts, the authors found. In a series of five experiments, Gino and Ariely tested groups of roughly 100 people each. With each group, the researchers first administered tests to determine participants’ levels of creative thinking and intelligence. Then, they gave them various lab tasks designed to make cheating easy.

In one study, participants were given a general knowledge quiz that included questions like “How far can a kangaroo jump?” and “What is the capital of Italy?” Participants were informed that they would earn 10 cents for each correct answer (up to $5). The researcher then asked the test-takers to transfer their circled answers to a standardized bubble sheet. One wrinkle: the researcher explained that she’d accidentally photocopied the answer key, so that the correct answers were lightly marked on the bubble sheets.

The participants were led to believe that any cheating wouldn’t be detectable when they transferred their answers; in reality, all papers had a unique code identifying the test-taker. The researchers found that people who scored high in creativity were significantly more likely to cheat when filling out the bubble sheets. Cheating behavior was independent of intelligence: people high in intelligence but low in creativity weren’t especially dishonest.

In a second experiment, participants were shown drawings of a diagonal line with dots on either side and asked to decide which side had more dots. In half of the 200 trials, it was virtually impossible to tell which side had more dots. But participants had been told they would be paid 10 times more — 5 cents versus 0.5 cents — each time they identified the right-hand side as having more dots. People who tested higher in creativity were significantly more likely to favor the right-hand side.

As the second experiment suggests, the type of dishonesty that creative people engage in is often subtle: if you can’t really tell which side has more dots, it could be the right side. So choosing the right-hand side more often than the left isn’t flagrant cheating, right? Additional experiments using dice games confirmed the association between creativity and a dishonest orientation, the authors found.

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The researchers acknowledge, however, that one limitation of their study design was the inclusion of payment for certain answers. Participants may have been tempted to cheat and self-rationalize because of the promise of a money reward. The authors suggest that future research focus on whether creative thinking alone, without monetary prompts, leads to a higher risk of cheating. Studies could examine, for example, whether creative types are more likely to satisfy selfish, short-term goals that run counter to their higher aspirations when faced with self-control dilemmas — like eating a slice of cake when trying to lose weight.

“Dishonesty and innovation are two of the topics most widely written about in the popular press,” wrote the authors. “Yet, to date, the relationship between creativity and dishonest behavior has not been studied empirically. … The results from the current article indicate that, in fact, people who are creative or work in environments that promote creative thinking may be the most at risk when they face ethical dilemmas.”

Meredith Melnick is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @MeredithCM. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.