Creativity generally consists of two components: mental flexibility (the ability to find different solutions for the same problem) and divergent thinking (thinking “outside the box”—the ability to think beyond what is usually considered).
In some situations (such as ethical dilemmas), a person’s creativity can be tested. In these situations, an individual has to weigh the desire to satisfy his or her self-interest against the desire to maintain a positive outlook. Here is an example taken from behavioral studies: a person must choose between two rooms in which to watch a movie. An individual with physical disabilities is in one room, and a person without physical problems is in the other. When the film is the same, people tend to choose the room with the handicapped person. However, when the movies are different, people generally choose the room without the person with physical problems, on the pretext that they like that room’s film more—thus revealing the stigma of disability.
Studies have shown that, in these situations, people tend to resolve ethical tensions through rationalizations that benefit themselves by making use of their creativity. That is, they act in a sufficiently “incorrect” way that they gain from their unethical behavior, but they act honestly enough to maintain a positive view of themselves. Thus, they rationalize and elaborate on their justifications so that they can convince themselves that such ethical deviations are morally appropriate—and thus do not negatively affect their self-images. It’s just like committing some minor fraud and justifying it by saying that corruption is widespread, or like committing a minor offense and arguing that “If the government steals, why can I not steal?” Thus, any situation that has room for justifications of potentially incorrect or selfish attitudes can stimulate unethical behavior.
A Harvard group tested the association between creativity and dishonesty in a series of five experiments, each involving more than a hundred participants. People were placed in experimental situations in which they must pass certain tests, and each passed test gained the participant a small amount of money. However, all these tests had room for little tricks, such as subsequently fixing one’s results, interpreting data in a biased way to promote yourself, and so on. The researchers found that creativity was associated with a greater vulnerability to cheating. They could also see that the more creative a person was, the more capacity he or she had for inventing plausible excuses for unethical attitudes, making these creative people more prone to committing unethical acts.
These results resonate with moral accreditation theory. When individuals are aware of their good previous moral actions, they tend to act unethically in later situations on the belief that they have acquired “moral credits” for the previous actions. As such, being able to generate original explanations (excuses) for unethical conduct through creativity can lead people to feel authorized to cheat.
[Ref.: Gino, F., and D. Ariely. “The Dark Side of Creativity: Original Thinkers Can Be More Dishonest.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 102, no. 3 (March 2012): 445–459.]