Why Your Creative Friends and Co-Workers Can Be So Deceptive

New research explores the connection between creativity and unethical behavior.

Posted Jul 29, 2015

Matt Wynn/Flickr
Source: Matt Wynn/Flickr

Creativity is normally viewed as a desirable personality trait; we all wish we could paint like Van Gogh, compose like Beethoven, or invent like Da Vinci. And, if we can’t do it ourselves, we’d at least like to be surrounded by people who can.

But is there a dark side to creativity? New research published in this month’s issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology examined this very question.

Dr. Ke Michael Mai, of South Korea’s SKK Graduate School of Business, led the research. He explains the rationale behind the studies below.

“What really interested us is the potential negative impact individual creativity can cause,” says Mai. “Many organizations seek to hire the most creative employees and foster a climate of innovation. For example, prominent organizations such as Apple, Google, and Facebook rely on the ideas of their employees to achieve success. Pixar, the leading technological pioneer in the field of computer animation, regularly accepts creative scripts and novel movie ideas from its employees when designing animated films.”

Specifically, Mai was interested in whether climates of innovation and creativity may have undesirable consequences. So he designed a series of experiments to test his hypothesis.

“In one of our studies, we measured creativity with an established survey,” explained Mai. “We then assigned participants to either a creative task that involved using a set of Lego parts as a product designer to develop a new product or a non-creative task that involved using the same set of Lego parts to follow a specific set of instructions as a product tester.”

Mai and his colleagues then asked participants to read a morally ambiguous scenario about a manager considering a questionable course of action, and to generate as many justifications for this course of action as they could.

Finally, participants played an economic game with a partner in which honest behavior would earn a payout of $5 while deceptive behavior would earn a $15 payout.

The results?

Mai and his colleagues found that those who scored higher on the creativity survey, and who had also participated in the creative Lego task, were more likely to develop more unethical justifications in the hypothetical scenario. They were also more likely to behave deviously in the economic game to earn a larger payout.

In other words, creative types acted unethically, but only when their creative instincts had been activated in the Lego task. Consistent with this finding, Mai cautions against concluding that creative people always act unethically.

“Simply assuming that someone who is highly creative will probably be unethical goes beyond what we are suggesting,” says Mai. “We also don’t want to suggest that creativity in organizations is a bad thing or that it should be avoided. Perhaps a better way of approaching our findings is to recognize that most positive attributes, such as creativity, can also have some potential drawbacks. By shedding light on this, we hope to encourage all the positives associated with creativity while alerting individuals about potential issues to recognize and avoid.”

While this research doesn’t mean your creative friends and coworkers are always going to behave deviously, when they do, you know why.   

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Mai, K. M., Ellis, A. P., & Welsh, D. T. (2015). The Gray Side of Creativity: Exploring the Role of Activation in the Link Between Creative Personality and Unethical Behavior. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 60, 76-85.