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Are Creative People More Dishonest?

According to top headhunters, creativity is one of the most sought-after traits in CEOs today. But is creativity also associated with dishonesty and unethical behavior?
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Creativity is not just for artists, musicians, writers, and scientists. Each of us depends on our creative faculties each day as we negotiate problems in work, decorate our homes, deal with family crises and interact with others in both personal and professional capacities. In fact, as I've mentioned in previous posts, we need to hone our creative abilities (at the individual, corporate, and societal levels) if we are going to thrive in the rapid-change climate of the 21st century. This is why, according to top headhunters, creativity is one of the most sought-after traits in CEOs today. But is creativity also associated with dishonesty and unethical behavior?

Earlier this week, the Harvard Business School released the findings of a working paper entitled "The Dark Side of Creativity: Original Thinkers Can Be More Dishonest." Francesca Gino of Harvard Business School and Dan Ariely of Duke's Fuqua School of Business reported that, across five studies conducted in both the laboratory and the field, creative subjects were more likely to take liberties with the truth than their less creative counterparts, especially when lying would lead to increased personal gains (such as money).

The authors of this paper suggest that two factors associated with creativity -- the ability to think outside the box (divergent thinking) and cognitive flexibility -- may account for this propensity toward dishonesty. The ability to think outside the box may allow the creative individual to envision novel and original ways to bypass moral rules, while cognitive flexibility may allow them to reinterpret their behavior in a way the justifies moral transgressions.

The idea that creative individuals are not always guided by a moral or ethical compass is not new. Back in the latter decades of the 19th Century, a set of prominent philosophers, doctors and sociologists popularized a theory that suggested both creative geniuses and violent criminals shared a set of "degenerate genes."

This degeneracy theory of creativity was supported by "evidence." The Italian criminologist and surgeon Cesare Lombroso published a book called "The Man of Genius" in which he catalogued the eccentric and often immoral behavior of past creative luminaries. Scientists and artists, he charged, alter the truth in their own interest. Lombroso concluded, "Unfortunately, goodness and honor are rather the exception than the rule among exceptional men, not to speak of geniuses."

Besides Lombroso's anecdotal evidence, sociologist Robert Nisbet reported that the degenerate genes of creative geniuses and criminals could be physically detected in their similar odd skull shapes. Lumps on the skull were believed to indicate character traits and defects, according to the then-popular pseudoscience of phrenology. To add fuel to the fire, Warren Babcock, a prominent New York physician, wrote in an 1895 article in The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease that the dire consequences of being born with degenerate genes included early death, a life of criminality, mental derangement and (less frequently) startling the world by scientific discovery or great contributions in art, music or literature.

In more modern times, researchers have also made a connection between creativity and moral laxness. Hans Eysenck, the influential English-German psychologist believed that creative individuals were characterized by a personality factor he called "psychoticism." This trait is associated with lack of empathy, a thwarting of conventional norms, and assorted anti-social behaviors. Several empirical studies indicate that creative people, as well as psychopaths, have higher than average scores on a measure of this trait.

Additional research conducted at Berkeley in the 1970s sought to measure the personality of creative individuals by testing thousands of subjects from different creative professions and determining which of 300 adjectives these subjects most often endorsed as describing themselves. The Creative Personality Scale, which is still widely used, was formulated out of the thirty adjectives that most highly predicted the self-reported personality traits of creative people in these IPAR studies. The adjective "honest" was among the most predictive, but it was negatively associated with creativity; that is, creative individuals saw themselves as decidedly not honest!

That brings us up to the recently-reported studies from the Harvard Business School in which Gino and Ariely found that creative people were more likely than less creative people to fudge the truth when it led to personal gain. So what does this connection between creativity and potential unscrupulous or dishonest behavior mean? Is the quest to hone our creative aptitude (as I advocate in my recent book, "Your Creative Brain") or to hire creative CEOs and employees misguided? If we enhance our collective creative skills, will we become less honest individuals, corporations and societies?

Please weigh in on this, and I'll present my own answer in an upcoming post.