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Unveiling the Real Evil Genius

Creative people are better at rationalizing small ethical lapses that can spiral out of control

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In 1940 Action Comics introduced a brilliant supervillain named Lex Luthor who tries to kill Superman to advance his plot to rule the world. More recently, news articles have portrayed Bernard Madoff as an “evil genius” because of his Ponzi scheme that siphoned some $20 billion from investors.

We think of an evil genius as someone who devises a clever plan for wrongdoing on a large scale. According to behavioral economist Dan Ariely of Duke University, however, the genius of the perpetrators often manifests itself not in elaborate planning of misdeeds but in almost the exact opposite: an unplanned escalation of a minor wrong they imaginatively have justified to themselves. I spoke with Ariely, author of The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty (Harper, 2012), about the true origins of evil genius.

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