Creative Thinkers More Likely to Cheat

a student with neon pink nails taking a standardized test
Creative individuals were significantly more likely to cheat during experiments that involved standardized tests than those who were less creative, according to the study (Image credit: Aspen Photo | shutterstock)

When it comes to money, creative people are more likely to cheat to get it than the less-imaginative crowd, a new study suggests.

The reason? Creative types may be more skilled at coming up with reasons for their less-than-ethical actions, according to the researchers.

In the new study, scientists measured the intelligence and creativity of 97 students from local universities in the southeastern United States by asking them to complete a series of recognized psychological tests. The participants then took part in five experiments to determine whether creative people are more likely to cheat under circumstances where they can justify their dishonest behavior.

In one experiment, participants looked at drawings with dots on two sides of a diagonal line and had to figure out which side had more dots. However, in half of the 200 trials, it was virtually impossible to tell by looking if one side of the drawing contained more dots than the other.

The participants were told that they'd receive 10 times as much for each "right side" decision as for a "left side" decision, or 5 cents vs. 0.5 cents. Participants who had scored highest on creativity on the psychological tests were significantly more likely to give the answer that paid more, despite how ambiguous it was.

In another experiment, participants completed a general-knowledge quiz during which they circled their answers on test paper. They then were asked to transfer their answers onto a standardized "item-response" test sheet, also known as a "bubble" sheet. The researcher told the group that she had photocopied the wrong sheet and the correct answers were lightly marked.

The researcher also told the subjects that they would be paid more for correct answers. The subjects were led to believe that, when transferring their answers, they could cheat without getting caught. However, all the papers had unique identifiers that revealed cheating behavior.

And again, the more creative individuals were significantly more likely to cheat than those who were less creative.

"Greater creativity helps individuals solve difficult tasks across many domains, but creative sparks may lead individuals to take unethical routes when searching for solutions to problems and tasks," study researcher Francesca Gino of Harvard University said in a statement.

Although the researchers found a link between creativity and dishonesty, they did not find a link between intelligence and dishonesty. For example, their experiments showed that intelligent-but-less-creative people were no more inclined toward dishonesty than less-intelligent and less-creative participants. [Hypocrisy Rooted in High Morals]

The study suggests that, "being able to generate several original justifications for one's own unethical actions thanks to creativity may lead people to feel licensed to cheat," the researchers write in a recent issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

As such, the findings have practical implications, the researchers argue. "The results from the current paper indicate that, in fact, people who are creative or work in environments that promote creative thinking may be the most at risk when they face ethical dilemmas," they write.

The researchers noted that they created situations in which participants were tempted by money to cheat, and that further research is needed to investigate whether creativity leads people to satisfy selfish goals in real life.

You can follow LiveScience writer Remy Melina on Twitter @remymelina. Follow LiveScience for the latest in science news and discoveries on Twitter @livescience  and on Facebook.

Remy Melina was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Communication from Hofstra University where she graduated with honors.