Five months after the implosion of Enron, Feb. 12, 2002, Enron’s chief executive, Ken Lay, finally stood in front of Congress and the world and placed his hand on a bible.
At that point everyone had questions for Lay. It was clear by then that Enron was the product of a spectacular ethical failure, that there had been massive cheating and lying. The real question was, how many people had been dishonest? Who was in on it?
Everyone wanted to know, and Lay, after his swearing in, said he badly wanted to explain things. There was just one problem: His lawyer insisted that he plead the Fifth.
And so the public got no answers that day, Lay placed his hand on the bible, solemnly swore to tell the truth, then invoked the Fifth Amendment and went home.
Still the puzzle Lay left behind — How did Enron happen? — has served a useful purpose.
In the wake of Enron, psychologists all over the country started looking more closely at how unethical behavior works. Last week one product of those inquiries was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Dan Ariely of Duke University and Francesca Gino of Harvard published a study which looked at the link between creativity and dishonesty.
‘Cheating A Little Bit’
Watching the Enron story unfold in late 2001 and early 2002, Ariely says he found himself skeptical, but probably for different reasons than the rest of the country. He found it difficult to believe that Enron could be explained by a handful of bad apples like Lay, former Enron President Jeffrey Skilling and Chief Financial Officer Andrew Fastow. His gut sense was that the problem was likely more general.
And so Ariely did a series of dishonesty studies in his lab and quickly discovered that the behavior was more widespread than he had anticipated. In the lab, when he gave people the opportunity to cheat, many took him up on it.
“More than half the people are cheating in our experiments,” he says. But the cheating Ariely found wasn’t uniform: While a small number of those people were big cheaters, most only cheated a little bit.
“We find that very, very few of them cheat a lot,” Ariely says. “About 50 percent are cheating a little bit.”
So what was restraining their cheating? Why didn’t they cheat more?
According to Ariely, when we face an ethical dilemma, like what to report on our tax forms, for example, all of us are juggling two extremely powerful competing impulses.
“In most cases, we basically want to behave dishonestly, but we also want to view ourselves as good, honorable people,” Ariely says. “So we try to steal as much as we can, while not hurting our own image in our own eyes.”
Creative People Cheated More
That brings us to the study published last week. Ariely and collaborator Gino wondered if certain personality types were more prone to dishonesty than other. They decided to look at creative personalities, figuring that creative people might be better at rationalizing their dishonest actions.
“It’s all about telling stories,” Ariely explains, “so creative people are likely to be able to tell themselves better stories, which would allow them to cheat more on the one hand, but not feel worse about it on the other.”
To test this theory, Gino and Ariely conducted five experiments, which they review in their paper. In one, after measuring the creativity of about one hundred people, they asked those people to take a test.
“We [gave] people a multiple choice test. We [said], ‘Please answer this as best you can, and we will pay you for each question.’ “
Then after the questions were answered, Gino and Ariely gave the participants a bubble sheet like the kind used in the SATs, told them to transfer their answers there, then explained that because of a copying error, the bubble sheets already had the correct answers marked.
“Now you have a dilemma,” Ariely points out. “Do you answer correctly? Do you transfer B to B? Or do you cheat, change your answer, and write C, [and say] ‘Oh yes, I knew it was C all along?’ “
The results of this experiment were clear.
“Basically, the people who were more creative cheated to a higher degree,” Ariely says.
Creating Credible Rationalizations
In all five of Gino and Ariely’s experiments, creativity was clearly correlated with increased dishonesty. And though they are not yet fully able to demonstrate it, both Gino and Ariely feel like creativity increased dishonesty precisely because it allowed people to genuinely see credible rationalizations where others could not.
“If you are a creative person, all of a sudden you can go through the same amount of evidence and find many more links to justify the position that you want to have to start with.”
But psychologist David Dunning of Cornell cautions this study might overemphasize the role of creativity in dishonesty. He points out that psychology has struggled for years to determine whether honesty is a function of a person’s character or a function of the situations that people find themselves in.
And while he says that both are important, we often underestimate how much a situation influences what we do.
“In some situations, we’re moral, in other situations, we’re not so moral, and really, what it is is the situation pulling out this ability in all of us to either be ethical or to be unethical.”