In the mid 1990’s, Apple Computers was a dying company.  Microsoft’s Windows operating system was overwhelmingly favored by consumers, and Apple’s attempts to win back market share by improving the Macintosh operating system were unsuccessful.  After several years of debilitating financial losses, the company chose to purchase a fledgling software company called NeXT.  Along with purchasing the rights to NeXT’s software, this move allowed Apple to regain the services of one of the company’s founders, the late Steve Jobs.  Under the guidance of Jobs, Apple returned to profitability and is now the largest technology company in the world, with the creativity of Steve Jobs receiving much of the credit.            

However, despite the widespread positive image of Jobs as a creative genius, he also has a dark reputation for encouraging censorship,“ losing sight of honesty and integrity”, belittling employees, and engaging in other morally questionable actions. These harshly contrasting images of Jobs raise the question of why a CEO held in such near-universal positive regard could also be the same one accused of engaging in such contemptible behavior.  The answer, it turns out, may have something to do with the aspect of Jobs which is so admired by so many.

In a recent paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers at Harvard and Duke Universities demonstrate that creativity can lead people to behave unethically.  In five studies, the authors show that creative individuals are more likely to be dishonest, and that individuals induced to think creatively were more likely to be dishonest. Importantly, they showed that this effect is not explained by any tendency for creative people to be more intelligent, but rather that creativity leads people to more easily come up with justifications for their unscrupulous actions.

In one study, the authors administered a survey to employees at an advertising agency.  The survey asked the employees how likely they were to engage in various kinds of unethical behaviors, such as taking office supplies home or inflating business expense reports.  The employees were also asked to report how much creativity was required for their job.  Further, the authors asked the executives of the company to provide creativity ratings for each department within the company.

Those who said that their jobs required more creativity also tended to self-report a greater likelihood of unethical behavior.  And if the executives said that a particular department required more creativity, the individuals in that department tended to report greater likelihoods of unethical behavior.

The authors hypothesized that it is creativity which causes unethical behavior by allowing people the means to justify their misdeeds, but it is hard to say for certain whether this is correct given the correlational nature of the study.  It could just as easily be true, after all, that unethical behavior leads people to be more creative, or that there is something else which causes both creativity and dishonesty, such as intelligence.  To explore this, the authors set up an experiment in which participants were induced into a creative mindset and then given the opportunity to cheat.

The researchers induced people into a creative mindset by having them complete a ‘scrambled sentence task’.  Here, participants were asked to make a series of four word sentences out of five words presented in scrambled order.  For example, when given the words sky, is, why, blue, and the, a participant might write the sentence, “the sky is blue”.  Moreover, some participants were given scrambled sentences which contained words associated with creativity, like original, novel, or invention, while others had sentences which did not contain such words.  This type of manipulation has been shown in previous studies to lead people to think more creatively.

Following the creativity prime, participants were asked to roll a die out of view of the experimenter.  They were told that for their payment, they would earn, in dollars, whatever number they reported the die was.  For example, if the die showed a three, they would earn three dollars.  This measure provides a clever gauge of cheating, as the average of a number of die rolls should be 3.5.  Averages much different from that would mean, in this context, that people were lying about what number showed up in order to receive a bigger payment.

In addition, the researchers had guessed that creativity would lead to unethical behavior because it enabled people to more easily come up with justifications for their actions.  Research has previously shown that whenever people do something which might be perceived as bad, they tend to reduce the ‘badness’ of this behavior by finding some justification for their corrupt behavior.  As an example, if you find yourself being less than honest on your taxes, you may justify this by telling yourself that this is something everyone does, or that it doesn’t really hurt anyone.

So, if creativity leads to dishonesty primarily by assisting in coming up with justifications for dishonest behavior a creative mindset should not influence people’s likelihood of cheating if they already have some justification in mind.  To test this idea, the researchers provided ‘justifications’ for some participants by allowing them to roll the die multiple times, but telling them that only the first roll counted.  It turns out that one way of increasing the ease with which people can come up with justifications is by allowing them to observe something which almost happened, but didn’t.  In this case, rolling a six on the second roll after rolling a lower number on the first, critical roll should give people a leg up on justifying their dishonest behavior.

It was found that when asked to roll the die once, people not primed with creativity were relatively honest.  Individuals primed with creativity, on the other hand, behaved much more dishonestly, reporting much higher die rolls on average.  Further, this effect disappeared when people rolled the die multiple times.  That is, when people were provided with help to think up justifications, creativity had no effect on cheating.  This pattern of results seems to confirm that creativity helps people to think up justifications for dishonest behavior.

These studies demonstrate that there is indeed a dark side to creativity.  Perhaps, given this information, it should come as no surprise that the best and brightest in many fields are frequently caught in all manner of immoral transgressions.  Steve Jobs was an iconic and creative CEO, but he was also a human, and subject to the same principles of behavior as anyone else, including these downsides to his explosive creativity.  In the case of the heads of financial firms and their exploitation of mortgage-backed securities, the tendency to hire creative individuals and promote creativity within organizations may be good for business, even as it is remarkably bad for the rest of us. 

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 at the Boston Globe. He can be reached at garethideas AT or Twitter @garethideas.