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Dishonest People Are Also Creative, Study Finds

02/21/2014 11:10 EST | Updated 02/21/2014 11:59 EST
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Is a dishonest person also highly creative? A new study published in the journal Psychological Science indicates a distinct connection.

"The common saying that 'rules are meant to be broken' is at the root of both creative performance and dishonest behavior," says lead researcher Francesca Gino of the Harvard Business School. "Both creativity and dishonesty, in fact, involve rule breaking."

Gino and colleague Scott Wiltermuth of the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California created several experiments that allowed if not inspired participants to cheat. The first experiment focused on number matrices and instructed people to find two numbers adding up to 10 in each matrix. Participants were informed that the more matrices they completed, the greater their compensation. This gave participants the chance to "inflate their own performance" without knowing their actual performance was being tracked.

The second experiment presented the same participants with word sets. Each set contained three words, such as "sore, shoulder, sweat" and required coming up with a fourth word that related to each of the previous three. This is a common experiment for measuring creative thinking, with fourth words referred to as "remote associates."

Gino and Wiltermuth found nearly 59% of participants claimed they completed more matrices than they actually did. These "cheaters" also came up with more remote associates than those who did not cheat. Additional experiments further solidified the theory connecting dishonesty with creativity, with data suggesting creativity is inspired by few limitations and rules.

"We turned the relationship upside down, in a sense," says Gino. "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 behavior and make us likely to keep crossing ethical boundaries."

While creativity is almost always something to be celebrated and encouraged, a lifetime of dishonesty is an easy way to hurt oneself and others. Gino and Wiltermuth are continuing their work by investigating how people react to "creative cheating," or when creativity and dishonesty are combined. Their experiments also focus on the repercussions of dishonesty.

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