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What Creativity and Dishonesty May Have in Common

“Thinking outside the box” has positive and negative aspects


The protagonist of the novel Evil Genius by Catherine Jinks is an only child named Cadel Piggott who has an unusual gift for creative thinking and problem solving. Through his creative instincts, he creates a fictional world based on evil, full of embezzlement, fraud, disguises, and computer hacking. The image of the “evil genius” is a pervasive one, found in movies, novels, comic books, and the popular media. In the 1927 movie Metropolis, Fritz Lang brought this archetype to the silver screen in the form of Rotwang, the scientist whose machines gave life to the dystopian city of the title. Another well-known evil genius is “Lex” Luthor of comic-book fame, a power-mad scientist of high intelligence and technological prowess whose goal is to kill Superman and other superheroes, usually as a stepping stone to world domination.
 
These fictional examples suggest that creativity and dishonesty often go hand-in-hand. Is there an actual link? Is there something about the creative process that triggers unethical behavior? Or does behaving in dishonest ways spur creative thinking? My research suggests that they both exist: Encouraging people to think outside the box can result in greater cheating, and crossing ethical boundaries can make people more creative in subsequent tasks
 
The ability to generate novel ideas or solutions to problems has long been considered an important skill, not only for individuals but also for organizations and societies. Creative problem solving can result in new products and services, which, in turn, create jobs and opportunities for others. And societies need new inventions, original scientific findings, and novel social programs to advance, just as organizations need them to adapt to changing contexts and compete in the marketplace. Given that creativity is essential to human progress and adaptation, it is not surprising that creativity is often encouraged and that scholars across disciplines have long attempted to understand how creative thinking occurs and how it can be fostered.
 
Creativity research in the field of psychology has been conducted from various perspectives, from exploring the processes that lead to creative ideas to examining the contextual factors that influence creative thinking and problem solving.
 
In one recent study, participants were randomly assigned to either a cluttered or an organized room. Participants in both rooms were asked to come up with a new use for ping-pong balls, a task that was used to assess their creativity skills. Judges, who did not know which rooms the participants had occupied, then rated the creativity of the ideas. While both groups generated the same number of ideas, the participants who worked in the cluttered room received higher ratings for creativity and judges’ interest than those who worked in the tidy room.
 
Related research has found that the amount of lighting in a room also affects our creative sparks. In one study, 114 students were asked to sit in groups of two or three at a desk in a small room designed to simulate an office. The room was lit by a fixture hanging from the ceiling. The amount of light it gave off differed: some groups worked in dim light, others worked with the recommended lighting level for an office, and still others worked in bright light. After spending about 15 minutes in the room, participants worked on a set of creative insight problems. These are problems that require people to shift their perceptive and view the problems in a novel way to reach the solution. Those in the dimly lit room solved more problems correctly than did both those in the brightly lit room and those in the conventionally lit room.
 
As these studies demonstrate, even subtle environmental factors can boost our creativity. More specifically, factors such as messiness and dim lighting appear to free people from constraints and inhibitions, which allows them to break rules and think outside the box. Could such factors also lead them to break other types of rules, such as the social principle that people should tell the truth?
 
My colleague Scott Wiltermuth (of the University of Southern California) and I tested this hypothesis in a series of laboratory studies. In one study, we presented our participants with a series of number matrices (a set of boxes containing numbers). For each, participants had to find two numbers that added up to 10. If they did, they would receive a financial bonus. We asked participants to self-report the number they got correct, thus giving them the opportunity to inflate their performance. Unbeknown to the participants, we could track their actual performance. Next, we asked participants to complete another supposedly unrelated task. We presented them with sets of three words (e.g., sore, shoulder, sweat) and asked them to come up with a fourth word (e.g., cold) that was related to each word in the set. The task, which taps a person’s ability to identify words that are so-called “remote associates,” is commonly used to measure creativity. Almost 59% of participants cheated by inflating their performance on the matrix task. More interestingly, those who cheated experienced a boost in creativity: they solved more of the remote associates than those who didn’t cheat.
 
In follow-up experiments we found further evidence of a relationship between dishonesty and creativity. Consistently, across studies, participants showed greater creativity on various measures after they had been induced to cheat on an earlier task. We also found that cheating encouraged greater creativity by making participants feel less constrained by rules.
 
Our research highlights that the notion of the evil genius may be more than a simple image from stories and cartoons. Given that both dishonest and creative behaviors involve rule breaking, those who are most likely to behave dishonestly and those who are most likely to be creative may be one in the same. Dishonest behavior has a well-earned reputation for causing societal problems. But it seems that it may also play a role in inspiring creative ideas. 

Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and regular contributor to NewYorker.com. Gareth is also the series editor of Best American Infographics, and can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.

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