Crafty and Crooked, Yet Creative

Ingenuity and immorality share a common thread.

Posted Jul 13, 2020

Q: Think of original ways to avoid work in school.

A: Bring some stale mac-n-cheese to class and make it look like you have a bad stomach and “throw up.” 

Source: bpcraddock/Pixabay

Across various studies investigating dark creativity, I’ve come across similar responses. Sometimes these are elicited by explicitly asking participants to come up with unethical solutions to problems. At other times, individuals organically generate such replies, in the absence of such an explicit direction. Often, the common facet that underlies such dark solutions is that they imply using deception or are blatantly immoral in some way. Test yourself.

Think of as many ethical, moral, good ways as you can to get into an event whose tickets are sold out. You can make a mental note of these or just write them down.

Now, think of as many unethical, immoral, and bad ways as you can to get into that same event.

It’s likely that the latter situation had you think of solutions involving bribing guards at the event, impersonating event organizers, or even orchestrating an elaborate hoax where you pretend to be related to the main performer (all legitimate solutions I’ve received). My past research has shown how deception is used regularly when coming up with dark creative ideas and is nearly absent when generating positive ideas. That said, it does not mean that bright creative solutions are devoid of deceit all the time; when you’re planning a surprise birthday party for a friend, you’ll need to be a bit sneaky, but it’s all for the greater good.

The link between creativity and unethical behavior has been examined extensively in theoretical and data-driven research papers. More recently, a meta-analysis by Storme, Celik, and Myszkowski published in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts has shed light on this association. They find that in general, creativity and unethicality (comprising deception, immoral behavior, and the like) share a weak positive association.

Free Photos / No Attribution Listed on Pixabay
Source: Free Photos / No Attribution Listed on Pixabay

To understand this relationship better, they distinguished the manner in which unethicality was measured in the analyzed studies: either via self-report, where participants were asked to state whether they behave unethically, or via objective modes, like observing actual unethical behavior. Asking participants to admit to being deceptive or unscrupulous may not tell us whether they are actually prone to behaving unethically. Consequently, creativity and unethicality shared twice as large an association when immoral behavior was objectively measured.

But why would a concept associated with benevolence and goodness be related to dishonorable actions? One line of reasoning suggests that dark creative ideas require both cognitive and moral flexibility. Creativity has long been associated with breaking the rules and in a sense, with deviance. When the ability to conceive of multiple solutions to a problem intersects with the ability to cross moral boundaries, dark creativity can emerge. Another explanation relates to the justifiability of one’s actions: if you’re more creative, you are better able to justify cheating. 

The relationship of unethical behaviors to original thinking is not only positive, but it also goes both ways. Higher levels of dishonesty can also lead to creativity as both involve a disregard for rules; engaging in dishonesty can enable people to feel less constrained by such rules, thereby sparking originality. 

It’s also important to remember that the very nature of unethical, deceitful, and deceptive behavior lends itself to multiple alternatives. Although the truth is singular, with little variability to distort, immoral behaviors encompass an ever-expanding latitude of options, constrained only by an individual’s imagination. No wonder there was a positive link between the two.


Storme, M., Celik, P., & Myszkowski, N. (2020). Creativity and unethicality: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. doi:10.1037/aca0000332