Behavioral Economist Dan Ariely on the Relationship Between Creativity and Dishonesty
“Creativity can help us tell better stories — stories that allow us to be even more dishonest but still think of ourselves as wonderfully honest people.”
By Maria Popova
The first use of the U.S. Postal Service was to sell products that didn’t exist. Spam dominates global email volume today. Hoaxes and pranks have been ritualized in everyday culture. And yet, we tend to believe that dishonesty and fraud are confined to “bad people,” of whom there are far fewer than the rest of us “good people” — that immoral behavior, as social psychologist Philip Zimbardo puts it, is a case of a few bad apples in an otherwise good barrel.
Behavioral economist Dan Ariely belongs to the rare breed of scientists who are both actively engaged in empirical research, running all kinds of fascinating experiments in the lab, and keenly skilled in synthesizing those findings into equally fascinating insights into human nature, then communicating those articulately and engagingly to a non-scientist reader. That’s precisely what he has previously done in Predictably Irrational, in which he demonstrates through clever experiments that even our most “rational” decisions are driven by our hopelessly emotional selves, and The Upside of Irrationality, where he explores the unexpected benefits of defying logic. Now comes The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone — Especially Ourselves (public library), in which Ariely asks himself a seemingly simple question — “is dishonesty largely restricted to a few bad apples, or is it a more widespread problem?” — and goes on to reveal the surprising, illuminating, often unsettling truths that underpin the uncomfortable answer. Like cruelty, dishonesty turns out to be a remarkably prevalent phenomenon better explained by circumstances and cognitive processes than by concepts like character.
Ariely writes in the introduction:
In addition to exploring the forces that shape dishonesty, one of the main practical benefits of the behavioral economics approach is that it shows us the internal and environmental influences on our behavior. Once we more clearly understand the forces that really drive us, we discover that we are not helpless in the face of our human follies (dishonesty included), that we can restructure our environment, and that by doing so we can achieve better behaviors and outcomes.
(Of course, one is tempted to counter that we still need moral philosophy to account for the gap between awareness and action, because simply becoming aware of a tendency hardly guarantees there will be the will or desire to change it for the better.)
Particularly interesting is a chapter on the relationship between creativity and dishonesty. The same habits of mind that allow us to create elaborate ideas turn out to also be responsible for enabling dishonesty and the subsequent rationalizations justifying our immoral behavior.
We may not always know exactly why we do what we do, choose what we choose, or feel what we feel. But the obscurity of our real motivations doesn’t stop us from creating perfectly logical-sounding reasons for our actions, decisions, and feelings.
We all want explanations for why we behave as we do and for the ways the world around us functions. Even when our feeble explanations have little to do with reality. We’re storytelling creatures by nature, and we tell ourselves story after story until we come up with an explanation that we like and that sounds reasonable enough to believe. And when the story portrays us in a more glowing and positive light, so much the better.
That penchant for justification, in fact — which Ariely places at the “control tower of thinking, reasoning, and morality” — is a powerful driver of how we make decisions towards what we want to do and reverse-engineer them towards what we believe the right thing to do is.
[S]ometimes (perhaps often) we don’t make choices based on our explicit preferences. Instead, we have a gut feeling about what we want, and we go through a process of mental gymnastics, applying all kinds of justifications to manipulate the criteria. That way, we can get what we really want, but at the same time keep up the appearance — to ourselves and to others — that we are acting in accordance with our rational and well-reasoned preferences.
Here’s where it gets interesting:
[T]he difference between creative and less creative individuals comes into play mostly when there is ambiguity in the situation at hand and, with it, more room for justification… Put simply, the link between creativity and dishonesty seems related to the ability to tell ourselves stories about how we are doing the right thing, even when we are not. The more creative we are, the more we are able to come up with good stories that help us justify our selfish interests.
But could it be, Ariely wondered, greater intelligence was responsible for better stories? One experiment measured the brain structure of pathological liars, and compared it to normal controls — more specifically, the ratio of gray matter (the neural tissue that makes up the bulk of our brains) to white matter (the wiring that connects those brain cells). Liars, it turned out, had 14% less gray matter than the controls but had 22-26% more white matter in the prefrontal cortex, suggesting that they were more likely to make connections between different memories and ideas as increased connectivity means greater access to the reserve of associations and memories stored in gray matter. “Intelligence,” it turned out, wasn’t correlated with dishonesty — but creativity, which we already know is all about connecting things, was.
In another experiment, Ariely tested how “moral flexibility” was related to the level of creativity required in different jobs by visiting an ad agency and studying the capacity for dishonesty in representatives of its various departments:
[T]he level of moral flexibility was highly related to the level of creativity required in their department and by their job. Designers and copy-writers were at the top of the moral flexibility scale, and the accountants ranked at the bottom. It seems that when ‘creativity’ is in our job description, we are more likely to say ‘Go for it’ when it comes to dishonest behavior.
Ultimately, Ariely explains the osmotic balance between creativity and dishonestly through our capacity for storytelling:
Just as creativity enables us to envision novel solutions to tough problems, it can also enable us to develop original paths around rules, all the while allowing us to reinterpret information in a self-serving way… [C]reativity can help us tell better stories — stories that allow us to be even more dishonest but still think of ourselves as wonderfully honest people.
The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty goes on to explore such fascinating subjects as why we cheat on our diets despite our most earnest resolve, how favors affect our choices, what companies and politicians do to pave the way for dishonesty, and a wealth more.
Published June 5, 2012