Sian Beilock, Ph.D.

Sian Beilock Ph.D.


Being Dishonest Enhances Creativity

Breaking rules is linked to both dishonest and creative acts.

Posted Apr 02, 2014

It’s no secret that people frequently break rules. Whether it’s lying to a friend, stealing someone’s lunch out of the fridge at work, or running a red light, rule breaking is prevalent in our daily lives. While in most instances, breaking the rules carries a negative connotation, this isn’t always the case. Consider creative thought: Thinking “outside the box” or operating “outside the lines” is at the heart of creativity and is seen in a relatively positive light.

Given that both dishonest and creative acts involve rule violations, it begs the question of whether people most likely to bend the rules are also the most creative and, even more so, whether one from of rule breakingsay dishonestycan trigger creative thinking. In a paper recently published in the journal Psychological Science, researchers at Harvard Business School and USC Business School decided to find out. Referencing the concept of the “evil genius,” the creative but wicked characters that fill both fictional tales of human destruction and sometimes real ones too (e.g., Bernard Madoff and his creative Ponzi scheme), researchers Francesca Gino and Scott Wiltermuth looked for evidence that being dishonest could enhance creativity.

Dishonestyviolating the social norm that we should tell the truthis one form of rule breaking that seems to happen all the time. Across five experiments, the researchers put people in situations where there was the opportunity to be dishonest and then explored people’s creative chops. What they found was a clear link between one’s tendency to lie and his/her ability to think in creative ways. For instance, when people had the opportunity to over report their success on various tasks, those who did (either without prodding or with some subtle encouragement to act in dishonest ways) tended to perform better on tasks designed to measure creativity. People who cheated or lied were more likely to come up with the solution to creative problems such as the Remote Associations Task and the Dunker Candle Problem (see below) and this link was explained by a heightened feeling of being unconstrained by rules.

Remote Association Task: Your goal is to come up with one word that forms a compound word with each of these words: measure, worm, video. That is, one word that if put together with each of these three words would form a compound word with each.

Answer: Tape

Dunker Candle Problem: You have to figure out how to attach a candle to a vertical wall using only a box of tacks and a book of matches. How do you do it?

Answer: In order to succeed at this task, you have to realize that the tack box cannot only be used as a container, but alsoif emptiedas a support. You have to attach the box to the wall using the tacks and put the candle in it. People have trouble seeing the tack box as anything other than a container and are notoriously bad at solving the problem.

In sum, the linking of dishonest and creative acts makes it easy to see how unethical behavior could occur and reoccur: Dishonesty leads to heightened creativity, which in turns allow people to come up with creative justifications or cover-ups for their unethical behavior, which in turn makes it more likely they will be dishonest in the future. A cycle of rule-breaking is perpetuated.

For more on creativity, check out my book Choke.

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Gino, F. & Wiltermuth, S. S. (2014).  Evil Genius? How Dishonesty Can Lead to Greater Creativity. Psychological Science

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