Dan Ariely: creativity’s dark side

Posted: July 30, 2012 by jennroig in Academia, English, Interviews
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Dan Ariely, researcher and professor, Duke University

This is the unedited English version of my interview to Dan Ariely drawing on the relationship between creativity and dishonest behavior. The Spanish version was published by AmericaEconomia, on 27 March 2012.

Duke’s Prof. Dan Ariely and Francesca Gino conducted a research to find out links among creativity and people’s tendency to cheat, lie or dishonestly behave in general. The found correlation was a direct one: creative people have more chances to behave dishonestly. Personal benefits and a keen flexible environment where rules are not so clear encourage dishonest behavior.

How would you describe the findings?

What we found it’s that in general lots of people cheat and lots of people can be dishonest, just a little bit. We found that people basically try to balance two things: while trying to feel that they are honest and wonderful people, they are trying to cheat. It’s all about racionalization. All about the ability to, in retrospect, racionalize what we are doing and telling us that what we’re doing it’s actually ok.

We found that creative people can just do it to a better degree. The more creative you are, you can basically tell yourself better stories about why what you’re doing it’s actually ok.

What are the implications of your findings for commercial and public administration organizations?

Everytime that a system has flexibility, when people can decide what they want to do, when the rules are not very clear, when there’s all kinds of uncertainty and fluidity, people sadly will use that uncertainty to pursue their selfish goals while at the same time thinking they are doing what is good, moral and honest.

If you think about public administrators working for the government, if it’s not very clear what they can and can’t do with the contributions from business people, or if it’s not very clear who can donate and not donate money to their causes, like it is in the US, these politicians are very likely to take the wrong path, use the money in wrong ways, with some very negative consequences and outcomes.

What it basically says is that we are our own worst enemies. The real challenge is that we would trick ourselves into believing that what we are doing it’s actually a good idea. I think it means we need stricter ethical boundaries and clearer standards of moral behavior about what it’s ok and what it’s not ok.

How can management harmonize the need to foster creativity -given the increasing need to support innovation- with the requirement of stricter ethical boundaries, rules and standards of moral behavior?

That’s the main problem. Creativity like everything else is a trade off, a wonderful thing. Where would we be without creative individuals? But we must also understand that creativity can lead to all kinds of dangerous behaviors. I think what we need to do is not cancelling creativity, or hiring non-creative people, or implementing some anti-creativity training. Instead I think we need to consider the cases when creativity is going to be incredibly dangerous. For example, if you are running a bank, and you have very creative people in your division in charge of designing new financial instruments, maybe it’s not the best idea.

Like many other things in life, there’s cost and benefit in creativity. I think that overall the benefit dramatically outweights the cost, but there still is a cost. When it comes to things that are dangerous, and potentially harming, I think we should enhance control. For instance, an advertising agency can hire, and should, as many creative people as they can, but when it comes to the expense report, be very clear about it.

Regarding your point drawing on the need to hold very clear ethical boundaries, aren’t these ethical boundaries related to the system of ethics and beliefs immersed in the specific society where the individual is raised? Could the experiment have provided different results if conducted within a different society, with different values and ethical codes?

Let’s separate two things. Let’s ask one question: are people in South America more or less morals than in North America? It could be that they are different. The question is not so much how are they different in the overall, but the result that the more creative people in South America are not also more able to cheat?

So, I don’t want to say anything about the overall moral in South America, because I just don’t know, I haven’t tested it. But I suspect, even if we assume that the overall morality in the US is 7, and the overall morality in South America is 8, I still think that in the US more creative people cheat more, and in South America, as well, more creative people will cheat more. It doesn’t mean that they are more or less creative, but that the effect of creativity would be the same.

So, it’s wise to conclude that despite whatever your religion is, the way your parents raised you, or how are shaped the ethical codes of your society, in every place, the more creative people are, the more likely they are to avoid the limits, or extend the limit of permissibility.

That’s right. Imagine there’re all these rules and they’re not very well defined. If you are a creative person you can say, “oh, they really didn’t mean that!”, or “this is actually good for people if I do that”. You can come out with a lot of stories about why this is actually ok. Imagine you are a very creative architect and you are building a new building and you’re trying to do something new that doesn’t fit with the code. What happens if that if you are a creative person you can say, “oh, yes, in reality they would want this to happen, they would want me to do this”. If I had to explain it, this is how I would explain it to them. Creative people can tell better stories, they can find more connections and give better explanations.

In your discussion of the findings from the experiments, you mentioned that cheating for the best personal interests was among the common characteristics of all the experiments’ results. So, it’s connected to what the individual can earn from dishonesty. The question is if you considered how this would come out working in teams, when they have not only a personal interest but a shared interest? Could teams reduce dishonesty while fostering creativity in the individual?

Actually, we also had that idea. We wanted to see what happens with people working in groups. Basically we find two things happening in groups. First, there’s supervision. With supervision, individuals might cheat less. But we also find evidence that after a while when people work together, they find it more easy to cheat because they are actually helping other people. All of the sudden I’m cheating to actually help you out. If you get to benefit from my cheating, this is good for you, and then I feel like a good person.

We found that when we do these things together, when we bring people to sit in the same room and we get them to become friends, then everytime they cheat, the other person gets benefited as well, then cheating goes up, not down. So, when I cheat and you benefit, I have another story to explain myself why I’m doing this.

What would be your educated guess about the outcome of that experiment, if the group would have been formed by international members? Would the different ethical codes of their cultures, and the fact that they don’t belong to the same social group, and identity, reduce somehow the tendency to allow dishonesty?

In fact, what we found is that as people become more friendly with each other, the effect of feeling other individual as outsiders, or different from you, goes away. If they didn’t personally like each other, that would probably eliminate the cheating, but frankly who wants to work in these groups, that that wouldn’t be a solution to implement in a workplace.

There are of course a lot of scenarios and possibilities we haven’t explored yet. There are many ideas of experiments we haven’t carried out so far. But from what we studied, I can tell that as people become more friendly with each other, they care more about the welfare of the other person. And if they care about the welfare of the other person, they are more likely to cheat because the other person also benefits from it.

The reason we conduct experiments is to see how things work out within very simple environment. But in reality, lots of things happen, and influeces, and it’s hard to say what would happen when you mix all of those things together.

Do you have any future plans to keep researching on this topic?

I’m very interested in cultural differences and I’m about to start exploring them in South America. That’s one direction. The other direction, it’s that we are exploring very different populations, I’m trying to go to people that just got out of prison, meaning people who clearly have behaved badly in the past, so we are trying to understand how those people behave and what it’s their tendencies to act. So the main research interests point to cultural differences across different countries as well as looking at personality and individual differences within a culture.


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