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Cleverest are Often Quickest to Cheat

Study warns creativity has a dark side

Creativity leads people to be more morally flexible, according to Harvard behavioral economist Francesca Gino.
Creativity leads people to be more morally flexible, according to Harvard behavioral economist Francesca Gino.


Rose Hoban

It seems for the past few years, the news has been filled with stories of people who cheat: bankers bilking investors out of millions of dollars, politicians who cheat on their wives and constituents.

The cheaters were always smart, creative people - who got caught. This prompted several psychological researchers to examine the relationship between cheating and creativity.

Francesca Gino, a behavioral economist who teaches at Harvard Business School, uses ideas from psychology to study how people make economic choices.

Gino finds the behavior of many notable cheaters fascinating, and it got her wondering why so many creative people seem to take the low road.

“Interestingly, there are actually a lot of examples in the literature, novels, movies, comic books about this idea of the evil genius, but really no empirical evidence for this relationship,” she says.

So Gino spent several years testing volunteers to see how creative they were. Then, she put them in situations where they could profit from cheating - where just bending the rules a little bit put a few extra dollars in their pockets.

“What we find is that creativity leads people to be more morally flexible," she says, "so they are much more able to come up with justification for the behavior that they're about to engage in and as a result, they are more likely to cheat.”

But where cheating really matters is in the workplace. And in a competitive, global economy, innovation and creativity are particularly prized. After studying people at work, Gino found that fostering creativity in workers also opens up opportunities for that moral flexibility where people are tempted to bend the rules in their favor.

“We think that the creativity really helps people resolve this conflict between something that is more longer-term, which is the idea of being good and moral and then, something that is more short term and that is the idea of advancing your own self-interest," Gino says. "And that does not necessarily mean getting money out of cheating, but it could also be getting other types of pleasures or utilities.”

Such as cheating on your spouse. In short, Gino says her study is a warning that creativity has a dark side.

"It's not that we are trying to say that people shouldn't be creative, we are trying to say that they should be creative but they should be thinking about the fact that their creativity can be used for the wrong reasons.”

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