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cartoon: bank robbery as a creative profession
A creative profession?

The Surprising Links Between Creativity and Dishonesty

By Jeffrey Baumgartner

Recently, I was riding my banged up old bike along a bicycle path that runs parallel to the train tracks when I saw a beautiful, new racing bike leaning unlocked against a tree. I assumed the owner had gone off for a pee in the woods along the path. In need of a new bike, liking what I saw and knowing that it would be super lightweight, without stopping my bike, I reached out, grabbed the racing bike and peddled off towards my home. The racing bike was indeed a lightweight. It was no problem to carry it as I bicycled.

When I got home, I examined the bike and found it was a very expensive model. So, I can be sure the owner is filthy rich and won't miss the few thousand euros it will cost him to buy a new bike. He may even be insured against theft, so it won't cost him anything. Meanwhile, my financial situation is not so spectacular this year in part because people like you have not been hiring me to do lots of creativity workshops and talks in your organisations. So, if we are honest, you are largely to blame for any questionable aspect of my behaviour. Moreover, the ex-owner of my new bike has surely learned a valuable lesson about trust and locking up his bike even when urinating in the woods. So, if anything, I've done him a favour.

All in all, I believe stealing the bike was partly good and partly bad − and the bad bit is mostly your fault. I am clearly blameless.

Just Joking!

As you have surely guessed that story is not entirely true! The first part, about passing the beautiful but untended racing bike, is true. But the act of stealing it was an idea that only passed through my imagination as I cycled along the bike path. I would certainly not steal a bicycle!

Nevertheless, the story illustrates a point that we in the creative industry tend not to trumpet because it is a bit embarrassing: highly creative people tend to be less honest than others. I am not lying. It has been demonstrated in clinical testing.

In their paper, The dark side of creativity: Original thinkers can be more dishonest, Francesca Gino and Dan Ariely argue that the reason that creative people are less honest that others is because they are able to use their creativity to legitimise their dishonest behaviour.

If you are a creative person, you are probably going into denial right now: "I am not a liar!" you no doubt proclaim. Unfortunately, you may be. Bear in mind that creative people do not consciously lie. Rather they look for ways to legitimise actions that are not entirely honest. Once their creative minds identify an excuse, they feel honest − rather as my alter ego did in the story above.

Now, before you begin writing me an angry email, bear in mind that this is a behavioural trend. In other words, the research shows that highly creative people tend to be less honest than people of average creativity. It does not mean that all creative people are dishonest and all minimally creative people are angels. It is merely a trend.

Seeing Dishonest Opportunities

I believe that in addition to the ability to explain away dishonest behaviour, creative people are simply more likely to see opportunities to do dishonest things than are other people. When I passed the bicycle and had a momentary fantasy of taking it, I wondered if such thoughts are peculiar to me or if they are commonplace.

Later, I asked others how they would respond to seeing a beautiful, expensive, untended and unlocked bicycle. Most said it would never cross their minds to take the bike. Only a few acknowledged that the idea would have occurred to them, but that, like me, they would not have taken the bike. What about you? Would you have had thoughts about taking it?

This is hardly conclusive research, but it does suggest that seeing opportunities to do naughty things might give creative people an additional advantage when it comes to being dishonest.

Inappropriate Opportunities?

The correlation between dishonesty and creativity presents a marvellous opportunity for senior managers struggling with the slow economy and looking for growth opportunities: hire highly creative thinkers and encourage them to look for dark, unethical and possibly illegal business opportunities. Give them lots of autonomy and then look the other way. Ignore their actions. In time, they will doubtless come up with unethical business activities that improve your bottom line considerably! The Enron scandal is a wonderful example of this.

In the unlikely even you get caught, blame the creative, fire her and promise to run a good company in the future! Not only will your business benefit from the employee's dishonesty, but because the creative takes the blame, you keep out of trouble!

Incidentally, if you do follow my suggested plan of action, please do not tell the authorities where you got the idea!*

It Works Both Ways

Interestingly, according to more recent research, there is a flip side to the relationship between dishonesty and creativity. Apparently, when people are encouraged to be dishonest in performing a task, they become more creative with the next task they perform. The researchers believe that when people see that they can get away with breaking rules in the first task, it opens their minds to breaking rules again in the next task. Creativity is often a matter of breaking rules of the status quo.

This suggests that if you want people to think creatively about a particular vexing problem or to identify an creative opportunity, a wonderful warm-up exercise would be to encourage the team members to lie about something else first!

Creative Liars and Lying Creatives

It seems, that there is a strong two way link between creativity and dishonesty. People of above average creativity are more likely to be dishonest than people of average creativity. However, this does not mean that all creative people are dishonest; only that there is a statistical correlation between creativity and dishonesty. Moreover, dishonesty covers a wide range of behaviour, from telling little white lies to illegal actions. By the same token, encouraging people to do something dishonest provides a temporary boost to creativity.

Now, if you will excuse me, I have to go and rob a bank in order to equalise income distribution in my village. They bank has way more money than I do!*


* Disclaimer

I trust it is clear that parts of this article were written in good fun. I certainly do not suggest you take me seriously and steal bicycles, hire creative people in order to run illegal operations in your organisation or rob banks!



© 2014 Bwiti bvba ~ creativejeffrey.com
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Jeffrey Baumgartner
Bwiti bvba

Erps-Kwerps (near Leuven & Brussels) Belgium